American notes

American notes is a weekly round-up of environmental news, views and tidbits from around the US.

Long hot American summer: The drought afflicting half the nation continues, spreading ever further into the country’s most fertile agricultural regions and sparking fears of a ruinous rise in global food prices. Less grave, perhaps, but nonetheless disappointing is the drought’s effect on a beloved American institution: the state and county fair. These yearly celebrations of local pride feature music and entertainment, regional culinary delicacies (hot beef sundaes, anyone?) and hotly-contested competitions among farmers over who can raise the largest animals and plants. With the nation’s crops withering under the sun, animals losing weight from the effort of managing heat and the cost of animal feed rising, the drought has all but ruined the annual competitions. Farmers who once prided themselves on prize-winning pigs or pumpkins have submitted disappointing entries or dropped out of the competitions altogether. The Wisconsin’s Dane County fair, for example, usually has two dozen gladioli in its annual competition. Only one was entered this year.

"I have never seen the drought like that before, this severe before," judge Astrid Newhouse said.

Odds against us: A new study from famed US climate scientist James Hansen of NASA claims that the spike in freakishly high summer temperatures in recent decades can be definitively linked to global warming – a connection that scientists have previously shied away from making explicit. Referring to the heat waves in Europe in 2003, Russia in 2010 and the US this year and last, Hansen wrote: "These weather events are not simply an example of what climate change could bring. They are caused by climate change. The odds that natural variability created these extremes are minuscule, vanishingly small."

Like the climate he studies, Hansen’s reputation in the US also runs to extremes. As the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, he is frequently cited by fellow scientists, policy makers and journalist as the country’s leading climatologist. His outspoken advocacy of environmentally sound policies (he has been arrested three times at protests) have also earned him scorn from an equally vocal contingent of climate change deniers. In Washington this week, Senator James Inhofe – perhaps climate change’s biggest enemy in the Senate – had only to denounce a proposed carbon tax as "James Hansen-backed" to signal his disapproval.

James Hansen arrested at a protest at the White House against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, 29 August 2011.

The simultaneous celebration and vilification of Hansen’s work shouldn’t be surprising, according to a joint project from Yale and George Mason universities that analyses how Americans think about climate change. The study‘s authors have found that how Americans respond to a source of information on climate change (scientists, media, etc) depends on their membership in one of six schools of thought about the issue: Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious, Disengaged, Doubtful and Dismissive. For example, a statement from 90 percent of climate scientists confirming that global warming is real would increase concern among two-thirds of those who identify themselves as Concerned.  Only 18 percent of the Dismissive, however, would be swayed by such a statement. Which one are you?

All sound, no fury: Speaking of the Senate, here’s a video (thanks Grist and Climate Desk) of its most recent hearing on climate change – an issue that one participant calls "a danger that is not as real as it appears."

Citizens of the seas: While governments quarrel over maritime boundaries (no particular dispute comes to mind), a coalition of NGOs, scientists and campaigners has turned its attention to waters beyond national jurisdiction. Enter the TerraMar Project, a theoretical nation representing the 45 percent of the planet’s surface covered by international waters. Supporters can sign up for free "citizenship" online and support the project’s work on behalf of the ocean’s health.

Red rover: Curiosity lands on Mars! And here are the five best celebrations from the NASA control room upon landing.

Image credit: ClimateStoryTellers.org