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Can severe weather open eyes to climate change?

Homes are flooded on the Arkansas River in Tulsa, Okla., as a forecast of more severe weather continues and perhaps calls greater public attention to the effects of climate change.
Homes are flooded on the Arkansas River in Tulsa, Okla., as a forecast of more severe weather continues and perhaps calls greater public attention to the effects of climate change. (Tom Gilbert / Associated Press)

The swath of destruction these past two weeks has been extraordinary. From the tornadoes that battered Ohio to the Arkansas River flooding that is swallowing up Tulsa, Okla., the destruction is reaching unprecedented levels. The death toll from the hundreds of twisters alone is past three dozen. States along the Mississippi River have not experienced such continuous flooding since the “Great Flood” of 1927. Thousands of Americans have become refugees in their own country, their homes damaged or destroyed by severe storms.

And while the disaster isn’t finished yet (more storms are predicted to hit flooded areas through Thursday), the time is coming for climate change skeptics in the Midwest and beyond to recognize that these are not random events. Scientists have long linked climate change and the gradual warming of the planet to more extreme weather — both in terms of frequency and severity of such events. While the link to tornadoes is considered less certain, there’s little dispute among experts that more severe storms and flooding are a direct result of the greenhouse effect that human development (and especially the burning of fossil fuels) has greatly worsened.

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That should prompt a degree of anger at those politicians and special interests who have so happily led many astray into believing that climate change was some concoction of the Eastern liberal elite with a penchant for more government. Oklahoma’s red state governing class may still be concocting excuses to keep its sacred petroleum industry off the hook, but even some oil companies support a “fee” on carbon dioxide emissions (Shell and BP among them) to support conservation and renewables with the money returned to consumers.

President Donald Trump’s failure to recognize the threat posed by global warming may prove to be the policy that Americans will one day most remember, however ruefully, of his time in the White House. His cavalier dismissal of science, his choice to back out of the Paris accords and his pro-carbon energy policies will surely prove far more disastrous in the long run than any single weather event. Yet his rollback of Obama administration greenhouse gas regulations continues unabated — including a recent refusal to sign an international communique urging protection of the Arctic region and its melting glaciers because it included references to climate change.

It’s been disappointing that so far most Democratic presidential candidates aren’t speaking out more forcefully on climate change. Americans believe that global warming is real by substantial margins — 70 percent of registered voters believe it’s happening, according to a recent poll by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Perhaps they believe Democrats and swing voters have no place to go or fear a backlash in swing states with a significant number of energy jobs like Pennsylvania and Ohio. But tell that to those living in Dayton who just saw whole apartment buildings leveled by tornadoes. Destruction on that scale has a way of opening eyes and minds.

In Maryland, we tend to see climate change in terms of threats to waterfront communities from rising sea levels, but the middle of the country is not immune. If anything, severe storms are a greater danger to the nation’s mid-section. Isn’t it time for leaders nationwide — even politically conservative ones — to ask: Wouldn’t it be cheaper to gradually reduce carbon emissions then to pay out hundreds of billions of dollars more to restore the growing number of communities turned into disaster areas?

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