This winter was a bad one. Ice storm after ice storm. Weeks' worth of disruption to schools, roads and business. Worst of all, there were those several long stretches of viciously frigid temperatures, the kind that reduce everyone to uselessly and indignantly declaring "IT'S COLD" when stepping out the door.
Meanwhile, the planet is still getting warmer and warmer. Last Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its latest report describing the potentially catastrophic impact of rising temperatures on ecosystems and human societies the world over. The IPCC, a global body of scientists tasked with compiling and interpreting climate data into a something like a coherent long-term forecast, said that all signs continue to point to human activity (i.e., burning fossil fuels) as the major driver.
There's no contradiction here. The IPCC measures long-term global trends in temperature; a cold winter in North America doesn't mean the earth as a whole isn't still warming. Neither would a mild summer, or another frigid winter after this one. It's possible that the appendage of Arctic air that repeatedly smacked the U.S. these past few months was edged southward by weather patterns influenced by climate change. Or, maybe not. Weather always lurches around unpredictably, and it does a disservice to the natural world when every meteorological event is seen as a harbinger of doom. By the same token, it's intellectually dishonest to blame a 12-day run of 100-degree temperatures in August on climate change, tempting though it may be when the inevitable heat wave arrives.
That creates a problem, though. Human minds work by generalizing from the particular and tend to put experience before abstractions and data. Without individual examples — the cancer patient helped (or harmed) by Obamacare, the kid's life ruined by mandatory drug sentencing guidelines — public policy is dry. The climate change issue occupies an odd space: It's increasingly real and present, but it's simply impossible to definitively say that any single weather phenomenon was caused by climate change.
All we can do is keep drawing the causal connections. Increased atmospheric levels of CO2 trap more solar heat. Burning oil, coal and gas release tremendous amounts of CO2. Therefore, our use of fossil fuels is gradually heating up the planet.
Environmental threats are often best described with the language of risk. The presence of a hog farm near the Buffalo doesn't necessarily mean the river is going to be harmed, but for those who love the Buffalo River, its value is so intrinsic and self-evident that any risk rightly sets off alarm bells. Just because ExxonMobil's Pegasus pipeline runs next to the reservoir supplying drinking water to 400,000 residents of Central Arkansas doesn't necessarily mean it will contaminate Lake Maumelle. Statistically speaking, it's highly unlikely another rupture would happen along that specific 13-mile stretch of pipe. But what if did? The consequences of an oil spill in Lake Maumelle would be so disastrous for Little Rock and surrounding towns that even U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, a friend of the pipeline industry, said the line should not be restarted. (Exxon itself now publically acknowledges the reality of climate change, incidentally, in part for PR purposes but also because it's a company built on good science.)
Meanwhile, the likelihood of catastrophe occurring as a result of increased atmospheric carbon output is high and growing every year. The IPCC predicts increased droughts and floods, rising sea levels, extinctions, falling crop yields, and on and on. Whatever the localized environmental hazards posed by a pipeline or a hog farm, they pale in comparison to the disruption Arkansas faces from a warming planet. If your home is touched by air and water, this problem is in your backyard, too.