Killer Tornadoes: How Devastating Extreme Weather Is Linked to Human-Caused 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, "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 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.

And of course they’re not confined just to our continent. You know, even in the last week, the Chinese have pointed out that they’re suffering through the worst drought in the center of the country that they have on record. In Colombia, the president went on TV last week to say, "We’ve gotten so much rain in the last year, it’s washed away so much of our infrastructure that it’s as if we haven’t been doing any development work for the last 10 or 20 or 25 years."

The scale of this stuff is immense. And as long as we just think about it as just a series of one-off, isolated disasters, we probably are not asking ourselves the most important questions. What can we do to stop this destabilization before it gets much worse?

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Bill, you’ve also—you also mention in your article what’s happened in the past year in Pakistan and Australia and other parts of the world. Could you talk about that, as well?

BILL McKIBBEN: Flooding is probably, Juan, the biggest example of what we’re doing. Warm air holds more water vapor than cold. On average, the earth’s atmosphere is about four percent wetter than it was 30 years ago, which is an astonishingly large change in a basic physical parameter. What it does is load the dice for downpour and deluge and flooding, and one country after another has been crapping out in the last year, throwing snake eyes.

I mean, you saw the pictures from Queensland in Australia, because Queensland in Australia has a lot of white people and TV cameras. You didn’t see similar pictures from Sri Lanka, from Vietnam, from the Philippines, from Brazil northeast of Rio, where they’ve had similar kinds of megafloods, now Colombia. There were some pictures from Pakistan, because it was such an epic event. There were, last year, last summer, about a quarter of that country under water. The Red Cross said in February that there were still four million homeless people from those floods in Pakistan. Of all the big things that have happened in Pakistan in the last year, the biggest one, by far, was that epic, biblical flood that came pouring down the Indus.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill, in your piece, you go on to talk about, well, the connections you shouldn’t make. And you say, "Because if you asked yourself what it meant that the Amazon has just come through its second hundred-year drought in the past five years, or that the pine forests across the western part of this continent have been obliterated by a beetle in the past decade—well, you might have to ask other questions. Such as: Should President Obama really just have opened a huge swath of Wyoming to new coal mining?" And you go on with a series of questions. First, talk about the Amazon. This is always what is linked, raised, on those who are questioning climate change. You’re talking about a drought in the Amazon, and you’re talking about these massive floods. "Obviously there is no connection," they say. But talk about government policy under President Obama.

BILL McKIBBEN: Sure. First of all, just two connections. The atmosphere gets moister. That means that in some areas there’s more evaporation, and hence more drought. And in other areas, that stuff is coming down.

Now, to President Obama, look, the guy has done a better job on climate change than George Bush. That’s not an enormous claim to make, but, you know, happily, he’s doing something. He’s also doing a lot of things that are very, very damaging. He has opened this vast swath of the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming to coal mining. The early estimate is there’s enough coal there to be at the equivalent of having 3,000 coal-fired power plants running for a year. His administration is currently considering allowing a permit for a huge pipeline across the center of the country that will run from Canada from the tar sands in Alberta down to refineries in Texas. That’s the equivalent of lighting a fuse on the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.

So, we need the President and the rest of his administration to focus a lot harder on climate change. It’s nice that they’ve talked about green jobs, and so on and so forth, but we need them to understand that global warming right now is the most difficult problem that we face, and we can’t do anything that will make it worse. The Congress, at the moment, is clearly preventing us from doing much that will make it better, but we’ve got to do everything we can to engage that battle. That’s what we’re doing at now, and with some increasing success, I’m happy to say. The movement itself, at least, is building. It’s not big enough yet to defeat the fossil fuel industry, but we’re getting larger.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Bill, you mentioned Congress, and yet this spring the House of Representatives voted by a 50-vote majority against a resolution that says climate change poses a significant risk to human health. Where are our political leaders?

BILL McKIBBEN: They were more—I mean, they voted by that 50 votes to basically say that climate change wasn’t real. I mean, we’re entering one of those moments. You know, it’s like Lysenko in the old Soviet Union or something, when there are too many people willing to believe that their ideology can trump physics and chemistry. That is a painful delusion to be laboring under. It’s one that we won’t labor under for very long, but these are crucial years, and we really, really have to engage this battle. By that, I mean since we’re never going to outspend the fossil fuel industry—and that’s what owns Congress—we’re going to have to figure out some other currency to work in. It’s not going to be money. It’s going to be bodies and creativity and spirit.

So, at, we’re in the midst of planning for this next huge global day of action. It’ll be September 24th, and it’ll be mostly on the backs of bicycles all over the world. We’re calling it "Moving Planet." We’re in the middle of this big fight against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is the number one front group for the fossil fuel industry. And we’re getting thousands upon thousands of small businesses across America to simply say, "The U.S. Chamber doesn’t speak for me," because they’re being—they’re the reason that Congress is being as willful and blind as they are. We’ve got to engage these big forces, and we’ve got to do it very dynamically, because the time, as this chain of freak weather events makes clear, is running out.

And it’s making it clear, by the way, not just to scientists and not just to activists. The head of one of the country’s biggest insurance companies was quoted just a week or so ago as saying, "Look, it’s very clear to us that the level of thunderstorm activity across the country is off the charts. We’re going to have to be raising our premiums, and there’s going to be lots of places where we’re not going to be able to underwrite anymore, simply because the earth is changing so fast."

AMY GOODMAN: And very quickly,, the significance of the name of your group?

BILL McKIBBEN: Three-fifty is the—good question, Amy. Three-fifty is the most important number in the world. The NASA scientists told us three years ago that any value for carbon in the atmosphere greater than 350 parts per million was not compatible with the planet on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted. That is strong language. It’s stronger still when you know that everywhere, outside your studios, up on top of Mount Everest, in the Antarctic, right now we’re at about 390 parts per million CO2 and gaining fast. That’s why this is not some future problem. It is the most pressing present crisis that we have.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill McKibben, I want to thank you for being with us, founder of His new piece, "A Link between Climate Change and Joplin Tornadoes? Never!" appears in the Washington Post, and we will link to it.

Also, just this small point, though it’s a big point for us, is that Democracy Now! broadcasts from the greenest internet/TV/radio studios in the country. We have gotten LEED Platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. It’s the highest level of green building that can be done in this country.

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