Seven years after Hurricane Katrina wreaked its havoc on New Orleans and the Gulf coast, Republicans had to delay the start of their national convention because of fears that Tropical Storm Isaac would interrupt the party. Given that the Republican party chooses to ignore climate change as a problem, it sure is ironic that extreme weather is messing up their plans in Tampa. How many years packed with extreme weather do we have to have before Republicans and Democrats will make it an issue worth debating?
Extreme weather in many forms—heat waves, intense storms, extreme precipitation—is made much more likely by climate change, and climate change is caused by human activity. Once again, this year we’ve set hundreds of new records for extreme weather. July was the warmest month on record, and it capped the hottest 12-month period the U.S. has experienced since recordkeeping began in 1895. This week also saw a report that Arctic sea ice has receded more than in any previous summer. Ice melt on Greenland has also quickened—an especially worrisome prospect, because when ice melts on land it causes sea level rise.
Extreme heat is getting harder to ignore, because it is more than just a summertime inconvenience. It threatens the security of our energy supply, as the shutdown of a reactor in Connecticut’s Millstone nuclear power plant recently demonstrated. The Millstone plant draws its cooling water from the Long Island Sound, and requires water temperature to stay below 75 degrees Fahrenheit. On August 12, one of the plant’s two operating reactors had to be shut down when water temperature in the Sound reached 76.7 degrees as a result of both the extreme July heat and a warmer than average winter.
While this incident did not immediately threaten electricity supplies in the region, as both Connecticut and New England have reserves to make up for the decrease in production, it highlights the danger that rising temperatures pose to electrical grids across the nation. More than 90% of the electricity in the United States is generated by power plants – both coal and nuclear – that require water for cooling. Increasingly warm summers are an expected consequence of climate change, and with the related rise in water temperatures, we may see more incidents of power plant shut-downs in the coming years. A recent study in Nature Climate Change projects that electrical generating capacity across the country could be reduced by 4-16% between 2031 and 2060, as a result of warmer waters.
And the United States is not alone. Seventeen nuclear reactors were shut down or operated at reduced capacity in France during Europe’s 2003 heat wave. France and the United States lead the world in nuclear power generation, with 20% of energy in the U.S. and 80% of energy in France supplied by nuclear power plants. A large enough decrease in electrical generation each summer, when many electrical grids operate at higher capacity, could lead to blackouts, with serious consequences. One recent study attributed almost 100 deaths to the 2003 blackouts in Canada and the Northeastern United States, with causes ranging from carbon monoxide poisoning from backup generators to pre-existing health problems indirectly exacerbated by stress related to the blackouts.
Recently Mitt Romney announced that if elected his energy policy will rely on coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear. He has pledged to eliminate subsidies for wind and solar power, but has said nothing about ending subsidies to fossil fuel producers. And he doesn’t talk about climate change, except to say that he is no longer sure whether human beings are causing the problem. That statement has won him the backing of wealthy fossil fuel interests.
All of this has me wondering, when it will no longer be acceptable to ignore the issue of climate change in presidential campaigns? How many weather records must we smash? How many lives must be interrupted?