As the pool closes and we start getting ready for another school year, my spirits are sagging. At first I thought it was just feeling wistful that another summer is coming to an end. But, it’s more than that.

Frankly, the end of August and beginning of September is just a hard time to be a climate scientist. It’s when we take stock of how our nation and other areas in the Northern Hemisphere fared during the summer heat, which our carbon pollution is exacerbating. More than any other time of year, this is when the new climate realities hit home for me. 2012 is no different.

Climate Realities for 2012

As the hurricane season kicks into high gear, we’re also seeing reports of Arctic sea ice melt and analyses of climate conditions during the past few months. Together these trends paint a picture of an increasingly disrupted climate system:

  • The Arctic sea ice reaches its annual minimum during the first week or two of September, so each year we wait to see whether another record low will occur.  We already know that 2012 has set a record low because sea ice fell below the previous record set in 2007 earlier this week.  Now the waiting game is to see just how much lower it will go.
  • Many of the most devastating hurricanes in US history have made landfall this time of year, when tropical Atlantic waters are plenty warm (see chart). This week, we all watched Hurricane Isaac slowly crash into the Gulf Coast, bringing back memories of Hurricane Katrina’s path just seven years ago. As climate change ups the intensity of storms in the decades to come, we should anticipate the potential for even larger disasters.
  • In a couple weeks, NOAA will issue an analysis of climate conditions during the summer, and we’ll get another reminder of just how hot it was compared to the long-term record. We already know that the first two months of the summer were scorchers, with July being the hottest single month ever recorded for the lower 48.
  • More detailed analyses of summer weather and climate disasters will also be released during the next couple months. We’ve already begun to hear reports about just how much of the corn, soy, and other crops were lost to the drought that affected more than 60% of the country.

With the barrage of climate impacts we’ve experienced in recent summers, one can’t help but start to think that climate change might be changing the character of summers to come. A new report from the National Wildlife Federation describes several ways that climate change is “ruining” summer—from more heat waves and wildfires to fewer cherries.

Signs of Hope

Even as we hear of more climate impacts, there are signs of steps underway to curb the carbon pollution that’s causing climate change. Just this week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized new fuel efficiency and carbon standards that will double the fuel economy of America’s cars, SUVs and pickups to an average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. When we roll up both the rules enacted in 2010 (the ones getting us from here to 2016) and the ones finalized today (2017-2025) they cut nearly 600 million metric tons  in 2030 or almost 10% of total US carbon pollution from all sources today. What’s more these new standards are proof that government and industry can act decisively to cut carbon pollution – and do it while boosting jobs and the economy at the same time.

Or consider the recent poll results that showed that 55% of registered voters will consider candidates’ views on global warming when casting their votes, with large majorities supporting action to curb emissions. Coupled with other polling showing that most Americans are connecting recent weather extremes with climate change, it seems that people are starting to connect the dots between what’s happening on the ground and what they can do with their vote.

Glass Half Full

I often get asked if it’s depressing to work on climate change.  I don’t think there’s any way to avoid being profoundly affected by climate-fueled disasters that we are already seeing today and projections of worst case scenarios for the future. Indeed, a recent NWF report raises alarm bells about potential psychological distress associated with climate change.

But, deep down, I believe that we can get ourselves on the right course and avoid the worst of the potential impacts. I see bright examples of innovation and progress every day, from new policies to my conversations with people across the nation who are beginning to recognize the way climate change is affecting them and their communities.