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Climate Change Gets Real For Americans


Now to a scientist looking back at the year that's about to end. Commentator Adam Frank is an astrophysicist. And in the category of science, he is confident about the headline for 2012.

ADAM FRANK: Something remarkable has happened that may etch this year into history for centuries to come. 2012's importance comes not through elections, economic shifts or the new movements in art. No, 2012 may well be remembered for something far more elemental.

This was the year that climate change got real for Americans.

The scientific debate over climate change was settled years ago. The basic conclusion that the planet is warming, through fossil-fuel-based carbon dioxide release, is not in doubt. But that conclusion relied on technical arguments about things like greenhouse gas molecules and the interactions between the Earth's ocean, air and glacial systems.

Opponents of climate change used that technical complexity in the court of public opinion, to throw doubt on climate science via faux debates about hockey-stick diagrams, the influence of the sun or worse, false claims of manipulated data.

But after 2012 debates over technical abstractions lost their edge. That's because this year it finally became possible to see firsthand what climate change really means. The long summer of 2012 brought us heat waves that toppled records. Large sections of the U.S. remained trapped in extreme or even extraordinary drought for months. The summer's corn crop withered and cattle failed to find adequate grassland. It's now December and that drought has yet to abate.

Then, of course, came Hurricane Sandy. The storm surge pushed parts of New York underwater and cost tens of billions of dollars in damage. In its wake, government officials stated publicly what scientists had been saying in private for years. Climate change is happening now and from now on it must be built into all our plans for subways, for roads, sewers, and for electrical power distribution.

Even the question of attribution changed, as scientists developed methods providing quantitative links between any individual extreme weather event and the supercharged climate that comes from global warming.

In the end, 2012 brought a sea change in our understanding of climate change. The discussion shifted from the abstractions of scientific research to the concrete domain of visceral experience. The new normal has arrived.

SIEGEL: Commentator and astrophysicist Adam Frank reflecting on the year in science. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adam Frank was a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. A professor at the University of Rochester, Frank is a theoretical/computational astrophysicist and currently heads a research group developing supercomputer code to study the formation and death of stars. Frank's research has also explored the evolution of newly born planets and the structure of clouds in the interstellar medium. Recently, he has begun work in the fields of astrobiology and network theory/data science. Frank also holds a joint appointment at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a Department of Energy fusion lab.