"This Is Just the Beginning": Forest Fires, Deadly Storms, Record Heat Reveal a Changed Climate
The past two weeks have witnessed the worst forest fires in Colorado history, a deadly Mid-Atlantic storm that left 23 dead and four million without power, and a record shattering heat wave across the East Coast and Midwest that has not seen since the Dust Bowl. More than 2,000 heat records have been broken in the past week. As the words "extreme weather" flash across TV screens, where are the other two words: "global warming"? We speak to The Guardian’s U.S. environment correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg and Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at the Weather Underground website. "What we’re seeing now is the future," Masters says. "We’re going to be seeing a lot more weather like this, a lot more impacts like we’re seeing from this series of heat waves, fires and storms. ... This is just the beginning."
Suzanne Goldenberg, the U.S. environment correspondent of The Guardian. She just returned from reporting on the forest fires in Colorado and earlier covered a similar outbreak in New Mexico. She’s now in Washington, D.C., covering the extreme weather impacting much of Midwest and East Coast.
Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at the Weather Underground website.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show with a look at the extreme weather affecting large areas of the United States. Massive forest fires, heat waves and droughts are devastating much of the country. This comes just a week after Tropical Storm Debby flooded Florida. But amidst the news coverage of this "extreme weather," we rarely hear two other words: "global warming." This is just a sampling of recent news reports.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: The heat wave that’s baked the Rockies and the Great Plains, now spreading east. There are 113 million Americans now in the excessive heat advisory zone. That’s more than a third of the entire U.S. population.
JOHN YANG: The high today here in Indianapolis? A sizzling 103 degrees. That broke a 78-year-old record.
Nashville broke its all-time record, hitting 109 degrees. Authorities urged people to stay indoors and canceled outdoor events this weekend. From Atlanta:
ATLANTA MAN: Smoking out here.
JOHN YANG: To Chicago:
CHICAGO MAN: I’m going to bring a towel soaked in ice and a bucket with ice and try to keep cool.
CBC ANCHOR: U.S. National Guard is helping police in Colorado Springs in the wake of the most destructive wildfires in the state’s history. Those fires have forced thousands of people to flee their homes.
BRUCE MILDWURF: The fast-moving fires in Colorado have destroyed hundreds of homes and are threatening thousands more. The fires have grown so large, you can see it from space. Take a look at this video from the International Space Station. It shows the area scorched by flames in the Western states so far.
WXYZ-TV ANCHOR: It’s getting quite dangerous for some people, very old and the very young, especially. There’s an excessive heat watch, which is basically an official way of telling you what we’ve been telling you for a long time. The rest of this week, lots and lots of excessive heat.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Plenty of extreme weather coverage, but no mention of the role played by climate change and global warming. This comes as a relentless heat wave is now gripping the eastern United States for a fifth straight day. More than 2,000 heat records have been broken over the past week. Thousands more were set in June. Even more striking, the first day of July also broke records for the highest-ever recorded temperatures on any date at spots in Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina and South Carolina.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, a violent thunderstorm known as a "derecho" left a more than 700-mile trail of destruction across the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic Friday, cutting power to millions, killing at least 23 people. And all of this comes as firefighters in Colorado grapple with the two most destructive wildfires in the Colorado’s history. The fires spread a haze of smoke over urban areas, displaced tens of thousands of people. They left behind vast swaths of blackened forest and burned to the ground more than 600 homes.
This is 76-year-old Colorado Springs resident, Damon Bowlin, after seeing the remains of his house.
DAMON BOWLIN: It’s just—it’s heart-wrenching, rather sickening. I don’t think we ever had a fear of being harmed by the fire, but when you all of a sudden realize you’ve lost your entire life, the thing you’ve been working for all of your life, and the beauty and the tranquility that we have been experienced for the past several years, and realize now there’s no house, there’s no place you can call home.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by The Guardian newspaper’s environmental correspondent, Suzanne Goldenberg, who has just returned from reporting on the fires in Colorado. She’s joining us from Washington, where her own home just regained power this morning after Friday’s storm.
And we’re joined in Ann Arbor, Michigan, by Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at the Weather Underground website.
Here in New York, Christian Parenti is with us, professor of sustainable development at the School for International Training in Vermont and the author of several books, most recently, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence.
Suzanne Goldenberg, let’s begin with you. You’re just back from Colorado. Describe what’s happening there.
SUZANNE GOLDENBERG: Well, it’s just huge destruction on a scale that they haven’t seen before in Colorado. What makes this wildfire different from other wildfires that we’ve seen really is the number of houses burnt and the fact that they burned within city limits. These are not forests far away, remote from people; these are city limits and within city limits, and lots of people were affected.
This particular fire also was described by firefighters across the board as extremely unpredictable. There was a moment in the middle of last week where the city’s mayor was giving a press conference. He was talking about how they thought they had things under control. And then, as he spoke, on camera, right behind him, there’s just this huge ball of fire burst out and came racing down the mountain and towards these homes. So this was a fire of a ferocity that hasn’t been seen before.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Is this what you would characterize as what some people are calling "super-sized fires"?
SUZANNE GOLDENBERG: That one’s a bit hard to say, exactly. I mean, when you talk to forest scientists and fire scientists, they have a number of criteria in terms of numbers of acres that are burnt, damage caused and how severe the burning was. And they haven’t gotten in there to the area yet to know how severe the damage was, whether things were burnt to the ground in the forest. They certainly were in homes. You’ve seen picture after picture of homes burnt down to their cement foundations. In terms of area, it’s not in the hundreds of thousands of acres we’ve seen in the other fires. In terms of its effects, it’s certainly devastating enough to rank as a super fire, but I don’t know if it fits—you know, if it ticks all the boxes that would need to be ticked.
AMY GOODMAN: Suzanne Goldenberg, the relationship between the fires in Colorado, the drenching rain in Florida, the massive heat wave that we’re seeing across the country—I mean, often things don’t look like they are connected, but this issue of global warming? Start in Colorado.
SUZANNE GOLDENBERG: Absolutely, climate change is a big factor here. We’ve had a 10-year or more drought across the West. You haven’t had rain. And when you have had rain, it hasn’t come at the right time or in the right quantity. Crucially, you haven’t had snow. You’ve had really mild winters. So there isn’t that big snowpack in the mountains whose gradual runoff would sort of feed the forests and the fields, give people the water they need. What you’ve got now across a lot of the Southwest is a situation where any tiny spark from a cigarette, from a chainsaw, from a car parked too close to high grass—any tiny spark is given up to possibly 100 percent probability of starting a fire. It’s that dry. And that’s an effect of climate change.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I’d like to bring in Jeff Masters and ask, Jeff Masters, can you explain what you think accounts for the record heat and violent storms that we’re now witnessing?
JEFF MASTERS: You’ve got two things to think about here. One is the fact that the atmosphere has natural ups and downs. And this year happens to be one of those years when we’re getting, say, a one-in-20-year type of heat wave, which, you know, happen about once every 20 years. But on top of that, you’ve got this background pattern of global warming. So now you’ve increased the odds of getting these one-in-20-type-year heat waves, and the expectation is, by the end of the century, this kind of heat wave is going to occur once every two years. So, no surprise here: a warming climate, you have a higher probability of getting hot summers like we’re seeing this year.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, then come back to this discussion. I’ll play a clip of Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who was at the climate change summit in Copenhagen, and we had a chance to interview him. And we’ll discuss what’s happening not only in the United States, but around the world, as we put together the two words "extreme weather" with another two: "climate change," "climate disruption," "global warming." This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: As we talk about climate change today, I want to play a comment from Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. I interviewed him in 2009. He was actually the mayor of Denver at the time, and he was attending the U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen.
MAYOR JOHN HICKENLOOPER: The whole question about extreme climate change as being the direct result of greenhouse gases, the argument that continually gets put back is, look at the Dust Bowl in the Great Depression, right? And that was before we had anywhere like these types of CO2 buildup. How do you tell which dramatic climate changes are the result of CO2 emissions and greenhouse gases and which ones aren’t? And that’s—you know, that level of scientific application is still—I mean, I think most people agree that the modeling is—again, it’s hard work. There’s a lot of noise on it. I think the—I think what the real key is, we know that climate change is occurring. Alright, everyone knows that. We know it’s dramatic. We know that mankind is the likely—the vast majority of it is a result of our actions. So we need to address it and move quickly.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. At the time, he was the mayor of Denver. He was in Copenhagen for the climate change summit.
Jeff Masters, you’re a meteorologist with Weather Underground, which was just bought by the Weather Channel, and that made me think of Dr. Heidi Cullen, who got tremendous fire as a meteorologist at Weather Channel when she said meteorologists—something like—shouldn’t be certified unless they know about climate change. Can you talk about the significance of what Hickenlooper is saying? Now the governor of Colorado, we’re hearing him everywhere, but journalists are not asking him about global warming, though they are of course asking him to talk about the fires.
JEFF MASTERS: Yes, it’s difficult to talk about whether a specific event is tied to global warming or not without doing a detailed study, which takes many months, typically, with a computer model to see just exactly what the influences might be. But we do know that if you’ve got a warming climate, this sort of extreme heat event that we’re having is more likely.
But we don’t know back in the 1930s exactly what was going on. That was a very interesting time, because, yes, a lot of that heat that we experienced then was due to natural causes, but it was also due to the fact that we basically turned the Midwest into a giant kind of parking lot for generating extreme heat through very poor farming practices. So a component of that heat wave was not natural. And this past June’s weather was the most extreme since the Dust Bowl era, as far as June temperatures go and extreme records. So, we’re back towards what we saw back in the '30s, and that should give us all some concern that we're getting Dust Bowl-type weather, which is very devastating for the American economy.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Suzanne Goldenberg, I want to turn to the work of the Heartland Institute, which you’ve written about, especially about the recent exposé on their work. Can you explain who they are, what they have to do with climate denial, climate science deniers, and what this exposé revealed?
SUZANNE GOLDENBERG: Well, the Heartland Institute is an organization that’s been based in Chicago and has been in operation for about 25 years. And they’re an extreme, ultra-conservative, libertarian think tank. And over the last number of years, they made it among their missions to discredit the science of climate change, in many ways, and they sort of set themselves up to be a hub for people who didn’t believe that climate change was man-made. They began having annual conferences. They put forward a bunch of so-called "experts" who claim to be scientists, who did not believe with mainstream science that the climate was changing and that human activity, specifically industrial activity, was having a part in it. And so, what they were doing, on a broader scale—where they fit in is that their mission really was to create doubt about the fact that climate change was occurring. And when there’s doubt, then it’s very hard to put policy in place. So, they were one of a number of groups doing this, but they were among the most prominent, and they had previously had links to ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers, as well as a number of mainstream corporations.
Now, in February last year, the water—February this year, excuse me, the water scientist Peter Gleick obtained—through deception, he basically pretended to be a member of the board of Heartland, and he obtained a number of confidential documents that were prepared for a board meeting. And these documents really shone more of a light on the inner workings of Heartland. They were important for two reasons. One, they contained a donors list, so we got to know who exactly was giving money to this organization. That was something they had never disclosed. And there were some surprises in that list, because there were some mainstream corporations there like General Motors Foundation, which has a corporate policy of believing in climate change and of having sustainable business practices. The second thing it revealed that I think was interesting was their project to discredit climate change was really laid bare. And among those activities that they were engaged in was a project they wanted to set up that would specifically target children, schoolchildren from kindergarten age, and basically indoctrinate these children so that they did not believe in the science they were being taught in schools. And those were the two most striking things that came out of that exposé.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what happened as a result, once this exposé was revealed? What happened as a result to the Heartland Institute?
SUZANNE GOLDENBERG: Well, basically the organization is imploding. I mean, don’t get me wrong, there’s been a lot of backlash against Peter Gleick. People have questioned whether that was an appropriate thing for a scientist to be doing. But, really, Heartland has been done a lot of damage. Once exposed, a lot of their mainstream donors decided they didn’t want to fund that organization anymore. And Heartland actually compounded the damage, because they adopted a very combative approach. They took out a billboard comparing people who believe in climate change to the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, and that just started a whole new flight of other donors. So, really, they’ve put themselves beyond the pale. They’ve made themselves seem a very extreme right-wing organization, where before they had adopted this posture of being sort of skeptical, probing the science, trying to get the most rational policy. All that posture is just gone now. They’ve been exposed for being an extremely conservative organization.
AMY GOODMAN: A TV meteorologist who’s been criticized for failing to connect extreme weather patterns to global warming has been CNN’s Rob Marciano. I want to play a 2007 CNN report covering a story about a British judge who was considering banning Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, from schools in England.
KIRAN CHETRY: Schools may have to issue a warning before they show students the controversial movie about global warming.
ROB MARCIANO: [clapping] Finally. Finally. Somebody—
KIRAN CHETRY: So you don’t agree?
ROB MARCIANO: Oh, there are definitely some inaccuracies. And, you know, the Oscars, they give out awards for fictional films, as well. Well, the biggest thing I have a problem with is his implication that Katrina was caused by global warming. And there’s a number of studies that have been out, and there—really, the jury is still out. Global warming does not conclusively cause stronger hurricanes like we’ve seen.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Rob Marciano, news and weather anchor for CNN Worldwide. Jeff Masters, your response? You’re a meteorologist with Weather Underground.
JEFF MASTERS: ...polarizing figure. He’s a politician. But he did write a good book, and he did make a good movie with a lot of excellent science on climate change. Was it perfect? No, there were some inaccuracies in it. Should it be shown in schools? I think that individual schools have to make that own decision. But we do have a lot of resources out there by people who aren’t politicians, on climate change and climate science. We certainly should be bringing those more to people’s attention.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, what about this issue that across the TV networks there is more and more attention devoted to weather, as it should be—I mean, 2,000 records broken just in the last month, it’s astounding, and every day a record is broken after the day before the record was broken—but that there is no discussion of climate change by these meteorologists?
JEFF MASTERS: I think it’s important for the public to hear that what we’re seeing now is the future. We’re going to be seeing a lot more weather like this, a lot more impacts like we’re seeing from this series of heat waves, fires and storms. And we better prepare for it. We better educate people what’s going on, give the best science that’s out there on what climate change is doing and where it’s likely to head. I think we’re missing a big opportunity here—or our TV meteorologists are—to educate and tell the population what is likely to happen. This is just the beginning, this kind of summer weather we’re having.