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Killer Tornadoes: How Devastating Extreme Weather Is Linked to Human-Caused Climate Change

News audiences are seeing an increasing number of "severe weather" warnings on TV, but little connection has been made to the role humans have played in driving climate change.

2011 has already become the deadliest year for tornado outbreaks in the United States since 1953, with more than 500 people killed. Extreme weather has made headlines across the world, as well, with megafloods occurring in Colombia, Vietnam, Pakistan and Australia, even as the Amazon just faced its second hundred-year drought in the past five years. News audiences are seeing the warning "severe weather" increasingly flash across TV screens, but little connection has been made to the role humans have played in driving climate change. We speak with environmentalist Bill McKibben, founder of the grassroots climate campaign, 350.org. "We’re making the earth a more dynamic and violent place," McKibben says. "That’s, in essence, what global warming is about."

JUAN GONZALEZ: Extreme weather across the United States has been dominating the news for weeks, from tornadoes to floods to drought. This is just a sampling of some recent news reports.

PETER MANSBRIDGE, CBC: Now more than 1,500 people are still unaccounted for following Sunday evening’s tornado in Joplin, Missouri. The storm killed at least 122. Both huge numbers, given how many people live there.

CBS REPORTER: The massive tornado tore through Joplin, Missouri, Sunday, flattening entire neighborhoods and claiming an untold number of lives. Eleven bodies were pulled from just one location alone. The storm was so powerful, it reportedly ripped the bark from trees as wind speeds approached 150 miles per hour.

REPORTER: The latest information I have from Oklahoma City is that there are now two confirmed dead in the state of Oklahoma tonight, 122 confirmed dead in Joplin, Missouri, from the storm that hit there Saturday, 1,500 missing, according to a fire captain in Joplin. And the tornadoes are said to be still breaking out tonight. ....

JUAN GONZALEZ: This is how environmentalist Bill McKibben begins his piece in the Washington Post this week. "Caution: It is vitally important not to make connections. When you see pictures of rubble like this week’s shots from Joplin, Mo., you should not wonder: Is this somehow related to the tornado outbreak three weeks ago in Tuscaloosa, Ala., or the enormous outbreak a couple of weeks before that (which, together, comprised the most active April for tornadoes in U.S. history). No, that doesn’t mean a thing.

"It is [far] better to think of these as isolated, unpredictable, discrete events. It is not advisable to try to connect them in your mind with, say, the fires burning across Texas—fires that have burned more of America at this point this year than any wildfires have in previous years. Texas, and adjoining parts of Oklahoma and New Mexico, are drier than they’ve ever been—the drought is worse than that of the Dust Bowl. But do not wonder if they’re somehow connected."

AMY GOODMAN: Those are the words of Bill McKibben, as he begins his Washington Post piece this week. Bill McKibben is founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org and author of many books, including Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. Bill is joining us from Long Island, New York, though he is a Vermonter.

Bill, your state is making history today, about to pass single-payer healthcare, and you’ve been doing that quite a while on the issue of the environment, as you travel the world to bring attention to two words that we don’t see screaming across our TV screens. We see "severe weather." We see "extreme weather." We see the horrible scenes of destruction. But we don’t see the words "climate change." Talk about these connections.

BILL McKIBBEN: Sure. Look, what’s happening is we’re making the earth a more dynamic and violent place. That’s, in essence, what global warming is about. We’re trapping more of the sun’s energy in this narrow envelope of atmosphere, and that’s now expressing itself in many way. We don’t know for sure that any particular tornado comes from climate change. There have always been tornadoes. We do know that we’re seeing epic levels of thunderstorm activity, of flooding, of drought, of all the things that climatologists have been warning us about.

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