Top U.S. Science Official: ‘Climate Change Is Under Way…It’s Having Consequences In Real Time’

As wildfires, heat and drought intensify, U.S. officials are increasingly warning about the link to climate change.

One of America’s top science officials says the current onslaught of extreme weather in the U.S. is raising awareness of climate change among Americans.

Speaking at a university forum today in Australia, Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said Americans are increasingly connecting the dots between climate change and the severe heat, drought, wildfires, and storms hitting the country. The Associated Press reported on her comments, made at the University of Canberra:

“Many people around the world are beginning to appreciate that climate change is under way, that it’s having consequences that are playing out in real time and, in the United States at least, we are seeing more and more examples of extreme weather and extreme climate-related events,” Lubchenco told a university forum in the Australian capital of Canberra.

“People’s perceptions in the United States at least are in many cases beginning to change as they experience something first-hand that they at least think is directly attributable to climate change,” she said.

Lubchenco’s comments are backed up by actual research. According to a recent poll conducted by the National Survey of American Public Opinion on Climate Change, an increase in extreme weather has increased Americans’ understanding of climate change — bringing public acceptance of the problem to the highest level since 2009.

This is the third statement on the link between climate change and extreme weather made by a high-level U.S. official in the last week. Speaking about the devastating Colorado wildfires on Monday, Harris Sherman, Undersecretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and Environment, told the Washington Post that “the climate is changing, and these fires are a very strong indicator of that.”

And while touring the damage from wildfires this week, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano also warned about the influence of climate change on the intensity of fires: “You have to look at climate change over a period of years, not just one summer. You could always have one abnormal summer. But when you see one after another after another then you can see, yeah, there’s a pattern here.”

However, even while officials draw the connection to climate change — thus increasing the number of people who say it’s a problem — a poll released earlier this week by the Washington Post and Stanford University shows that the issue has fallen behind local air and water pollution as the most important environmental priority for Americans.

Why the change in priority? Because political leaders — particularly President Obama — are not talking about the issue enough in America. (Case in point: Lubchenco’s comments were made in Australia, not in the U.S. And it took a trip to Australia last November for Obama to make strong comments about climate change — and he’s said almost nothing about the problem directly to Americans since then.)

The Washington Post offered some interesting anecdotes on the Administration’s messaging problem:

The findings, along with follow-up interviews with some respondents, indicate that Washington’s decision to shelve action on climate policy means that the issue has receded — even though many people link recent dramatic weather events to global warming. And they may help explain why elected officials feel little pressure to impose curbs on greenhouse gas emissions.

“I really don’t give it a thought,” said Wendy Stewart, a 46-year-old bookkeeper in New York. Although she thinks warmer winters and summers are signs of climate change, she has noticed that political leaders don’t bring up the subject. “I’ve never heard them speak on global warming,” she said. “I’ve never heard them elaborate on it.”

Michael Joseph, 20, a student at the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, said he sees extreme weather-related events such as the Colorado wildfires and the derecho storm that struck Washington on Friday as “having something to do with climate change.” But, like Stewart, he added, “I don’t really hear about it that much.”

Even with this poor messaging, the Washington Post poll found three quarters of Americans believe the earth is warming and that governments must act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One wonders how dramatically demand for action would increase if high-level officials continued to be as blunt as climate scientists about the problem.

41 Responses to Top U.S. Science Official: ‘Climate Change Is Under Way…It’s Having Consequences In Real Time’

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    Obama’s problem is not his messaging, but rather his fear of the power of the fossil fuel companies, and the wealthy people who own stock in them.

    Our president lacks the inner qualities to lead here, or at least to speak out. Better than the Republicans is not good enough.

  2. Spike says:

    The current runtish poverty of action worldwide reminds me of that Churchill quote

    It is no use saying, ‘We are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.

  3. Gail says:

    I understand why climate scientists and activists separate the issue from environmental problems (over-extraction of resources, overpopulation, and pollution) but I think it’s unfortunate. They are inextricably intertwined and result from the same industrial processes, which are embedded in modern societies that are based on exponential growth. Growth is by definition unsustainable on a finite planet, and we’re not going to avert catastrophic overshoot with technological fixes. Herein is the reason climate activists and scientists part with ecology, which is a huge and tragic error in judgment.

  4. David Goldstein says:

    I totally agree with you AND a conundrum I have not been able to break through is this: it seems that ‘growth capitalism’ is the ‘religion’ of our nation and, increasingly, the world. It feels like such a non-starter to try and get traction around addressing the possibility of getting of the track of exponential growth- I wouldn’t even know how to go about it. What do you think?

  5. M Tucker says:

    “…an increase in extreme weather has increased Americans’ understanding of climate change — bringing public acceptance of the problem to the highest level since 2009.”

    Ah, no. Haven’t we learned anything from past experience? Homo sapiens indeed! Wait until winter and watch the sheep turn the other way. All it will take is one blizzard. It will not even need to be accompanied by record cold temperatures. In the winter the sheep only notice the snow. We had better get our ducks in a row in regard to explaining what to expect in the summer and what to expect in the winter. A mild winter will only upset those who wish to indulge their obsession for winter sports; not a large part of the electorate. Even those in the Southwest did not seem too upset about the diminished snowpack last winter. But, if next winter brings record snow the opinion polls will swing back. Do you think anything will happen in congress before next winter comes? The sheep respond to extreme discomfort and right now that means extreme heat, wildfires, severe thunderstorms that might spawn intense wind storms, tornadoes, and the occasional flood. After the election, after the winter holiday break, that discomfort will be caused by cold weather and intense snow but another mild winter would have no influence at all on the American sheep.

    Where is the poll on the top issues concerning voters? Where does climate change come in on that list?

  6. So right. Professor Bartlett’s lecture way back in 1995 makes it all too clear:

  7. Paul Magnus says:

    “Why the change in priority?”

    Has something to do also with the fracking issue becoming more prominent.

  8. Mark says:

    This is one of of the most informative sites on the net, everything about it is excellent.

    But…. I wish Joe Romm would stop mentioning Obama’s messaging.

    Obama’s message on climate change is very clear.

    According to Joe, (some time ago) Obama was advised by someone close to him, to do nothing significant on climate change.

    And that ‘s what he’s done. Nothing significant.

    And that is not a messaging problem.

  9. BillD says:

    Obama should listen to Steven Chu and Jane Lubchenco I think that everyone knows that Chu won the Nobel Prize in Physics. Jane L. is one of the most cited eocologists/marine biologists in the world. Her personal research also puts her high among citations for papers on climate change. Good to see that she is speaking out. At least one might presume that she is not being muzzled by the administration.

  10. Gail says:

    But you left out, not just high food prices, but unaffordable food prices for many. Look at this photo of a corn field:

    People won’t be able to forget when they are hungry.

  11. Gail says:

    To be perfectly honest I think we’ve been screwed ever since Prometheus gave us fire – it was only a matter of time. We have been clever about extending overshoot, but now the time is nigh. So what I think is – learn about it, grieve, accept. It’s in our DNA to grow exponentially, and we have no predators (other than each other). Try to be good and kind.

    I find it helpful to read – Paul Chefurka, Guy McPherson, Alder Stone, even Chris Hedges…there are many others, Paul Gilding, Suzanne Duarte, Derrick Jensen, Paul Kingsnorth, David Hilfiker, Dianne Dumonoski

  12. Propagandee says:

    Speaking just naked politics here, wouldn’t now be a good time for the Obama campaign to mention climate change, while most of the country is suffering mightily from climate change related weather…if for no other reason than to demonstrate just how whacked the Rethugs are when they inevitably and irrationally deny deny deny?

  13. M Tucker says:

    We have been living with high food prices for awhile now and most seem more concerned about the debt. All those folks without power throwing away spoiled food without much of a complaint…just get the AC going. Not one news organization is interested in reporting on what happens to the American farmer. You must go to the agriculture organizations for that. The only mention we get in popular media can be found on the business reports and you must listen carefully because they will not say much. American media, for the most part, treat farm reports as if it were some kind of hillbilly news…not of interest to the 70% of Americans who live in cities or urban areas.

    Man does have many predators if you remove modern civilization. Better start making friends with a South African Bushman.

  14. Dick Smith says:

    Chu, Lubchenko and John Holdren should resign–in protest if Obama refuses to lead–or for incompetence if they haven’t been able to get his attention on the urgency of the problem in more than 3 years that they’ve been on the job.

  15. Jerry Jian says:

    For now let’s put Obama back in and continue to work the system by encouraging more courageous, kind and conscious people to go for elected positions and protect the commons from the greed machine in the meantime.

  16. David Goldstein says:

    Gail: here are recent words of Thich Hath Hanh, a wonderful Buddhist teacher and social activist: “Without collective awakening the [environmental] catastrophe will come,” he warns. “Civilizations have been destroyed many times and this civilization is no different. It can be destroyed. We can think of time in terms of millions of years and life will resume little by little. The cosmos operates for us very urgently, but geological time is different.” I took a deep breath when I read those words.

  17. Clearly, Obama must know. He is a very intelligent man surrounded by intelligent climate advisors. Perhaps the ‘political animal’ aspect of him has led him to basically abdicate leadership on the climate. Perhaps, in retrospect, this aspect will turn out to be his ‘Achilles Heel’. I wish Biden would unexpectedly ‘go off’ about the climate. That would be fun!

  18. Jerry Jian says:

    We need to bring risk management back into an equation that values the life support system and applies life cycle costing; when we assess impact of the industrial model we see that it externalizes long term impacts and those costs. The big corporate model exasperates this as it privatizes short term profits and socializes long term risks. This is bad business for the whole of society but greed blinds. Build a sustainable community right where you live; use the systems to change them.

  19. Jerry Jian says:

    I think the argument is a distraction that some will never budge on even as they are melting just like that Twilight Zone episode! We need to work past this argument to implement a sustainable economy and all the policies and measures that are required; just do it!

  20. Becky says:

    Well said. I like President Obama well enough but he is first and foremost a politician and second a statesman. Too bad but the fossil fuel industry can crush anybody who REALLY stands up to them.

  21. Gail says:

    Thanks, David.

  22. M Tucker says:

    Human civilization is not the same as life on Earth. Many other creatures, flora and fauna, will survive and as a Buddhist he must know that those sentient beings are just as important as a humans. No other species will mourn the loss of humans. However I personally doubt that this will means the end of homo sapiens but unless we act soon I truly believe it means the end of civilization as we know it.

  23. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Please stop repeating myths that have no basis in fact. It is NOT in our DNA to grow exponentially. You only have to see that educating women drops the birth rate dramatically to the point where many nations are below replacement levels.

    I’m getting tired of writing that there have been and still are cultures that limited their populations to the carrying capacity of their land, and providing references, but it is easier apparently to keep on perpetuating this self-serving myth, ME

  24. Mareli says:

    See how Americans like this disaster movie – living it, not watching in an air-conditioned theatre or at home on the DVD player.

  25. Merrelyn Emery says:

    This article and many of the comments exemplify exactly what you expect when you set up an authoritarian system – lots of people sitting around, wringing their hands, waiting for the great leader to rescue them. It’s called the basic assumption of dependency.

    Yes, you have a few organizations such as 350 etc but it seems like they are unable to break the predominant pattern at the moment, ME

  26. Hey Merrelyn- I did something :) I put up a billboard in response to the Heartland Unibomber Billboard with this accompanying website. Check it out:
    Granted, it hasn’t ‘changed the world’, but it was fun!

  27. David says:

    I have to disagree with your premise. My belief is that we, and millions of other’s, are not a bunch of people sitting around and wringing our hands. Speaking for myself from here in Oregon I recycle 80% of my trash and buy locally as much as possible. But the unfortunate truth is that a multitude of us paddling individually is not going to stear the ship in a new direction. At least not directly.

    I do not feel that everyone is sitting idly by waiting for our great leader to rescue us. So I must agree with Mike’s initial comment that “Obama’s problem is not his messaging, but rather his fear of the powerful elite, my paraphrase”. He has exhibited the same fear when dealing with the Wall Street and health care reform debacles. I admire the man for all that he has accomplished personally, and professionally, but he really needs to grow a couple and cut to the chase on these issues.

  28. SqueakyRat says:

    What an odd use of the expression “real time”! I suppose Lubchenko means we can see dramatic evidence right now, but after all, warming was always happening in “real time.”

  29. Tim Palmer says:

    As far as other species who might miss H. sapiens are concerned, there was once a ‘joke’ about this:

    God called all the species together and asked who would miss human beings if they were to be disappear from the face of the Earth?

    Two species were supportive: 1). The Dog 2.) The Mosquito.

  30. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Two Davids above, good on you and more power to you.

    That does not invalidate my point however, which is that many see it only as Obama’s responsibility. Even on this very high quality blog you can read the comments every week ranging from “Obama has failed’ to “I am not going to vote” to “this is what Obama must do to be a good leader” etc. I get very little sense that the American people collectively recognize their collective responsibility for the current state of affairs or are prepared to act collectively to change it, outside of a few organizations as I mentioned. And what has happened to the Occupy movement that looked like a promising start? ME

  31. The Oracle says:

    It’s all about marketing and having a big enough megaphone, and a concerted effort by those alarmed at rising atmospheric temperatures to break through the corporate wall of denial.

    Remember “three out of four dentists say….”?

    How about “999 out of 1,000 global climatologists say that the earth’s atmosphere is heating up, ice is melting at an alarming rate, weather patterns are shifting and becoming more extreme, and it’s all due to humans pumping more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.”

    Hundreds of concerned scientists should gather, sit for a group portrait, with the message above somewhere on the resulting poster, one produced and distributed widely. Or maybe a television ad campaign. Or this “global warming” poster sent to all public and private schools, to science teachers. Or maybe a picture of people up to their necks in water with Global Warming at the top might get the message across.

    IOW, in-house scientific studies just don’t cut it, even if they do get reported on accurately in print somewhere. We need visual representations of what will happen to the world and humanity if atmospheric CO2 concentrations continue to rise and the ice keeps melting, visuals that are simple but get the message across. And then these visuals need to be widely disseminated. Only this might cut through the right-wing corporate noise and denial campaign.

  32. Crystal_inafrica says:

    Great comments!!
    America needs to stand up for the Electric car and the rest of the world will follow… MASS produce. THings are still going to be extreme but at least there will be hope for children on our planet.
    I fear that ocean circulation may stop, due to rising sea level temperatures in the Arctic, if we dont change our behaviour now. This will be the end of us!
    I wish we could rewind 30 years and do it all again. Better.
    Or is there still time to adapt and evolve?

  33. Laura says:

    Compared to the alternative, he’s MORE than good enough for me. Let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot by waffling on this one. Given the extraordinary obstructionism he’s faced in Congress (including the “blue dogs” who were resistant to his efforts during his first two years), in addition to the efforts by many on the right to portray him as a cultural outsider (and we know what else was implied by those efforts), it’s miraculous that he’s gotten anything done at all. The Perfect Progressive isn’t likely to get elected at this point, but Mitt Romney and politicians like him are.

  34. Laura says:

    P.S. Rather, Mitt Romney and similar politicians are likely to get elected UNLESS we turn out in large numbers for to vote for their opponents.

  35. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Absolutely, Merrelyn, and I would go so far as to say that most, and all long-lasting, civilizations persisted because they lived within the natural limits of their lands. Some, like the Maya and Angkor, did grow like topsy like us, and they paid the price. Others were destroyed by climate change that they did not bring about, but their populations persisted at a lower level of civilization in lower numbers. Our absolute insistence on growth is akin to the action of the neoplasm, with the inevitable result, all, according to some opinions, to pay off interest on loans-the real meaning of ‘the magic of compound interest’.

  36. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘Man is wolf to man’.

  37. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘Tooth Fairy-save us all!’

  38. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I think it is a very straight forward message, and I get it. I find the inability of others to understand Obama’s clear intention very puzzling.

  39. It’s not quite so simple. Remember the money Obama extracted from BP?

    Of course BP is “foreign” oil company (actually, an international corporation), and he probably used the theat of eliminating some of their Department of Defense contracts to twist their arms. But he had no other weapons at his disposal, and he did get results.

    He vacillates on issues like oil exploration, and he is friend of nuclear, but he’s certainly not the fossil-fuel whore that the Republicans would like to elect.

  40. This is the kind of stuff does all the time. Join ’em.