|September 2010: Extreme monsoon rains flood 20 percent of Pakistan.| REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro|
Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin once joked that global warming might improve conditions in his country. "You would have to spend less money on fur coats and other warm things," he said in 2003, lining up with then-president George W. Bush against the Kyoto Protocol. But last summer, drought and a record heat wave led to forest fires that killed 54, reduced daytime visibility in Moscow to 20 yards, and destroyed a quarter of the country's grain harvest. Shaken, Putin traveled to meet with climate scientists at an Arctic research station, where, Reuters noted, he likened the fires "to Nazi Germany's attack on the Soviet Union."
Climate models predict many more extreme weather events as atmospheric carbon dioxide increases, and world leaders of all political stripes are taking note. Last September, after intense rains in Mexico triggered massive mudslides and displaced half a million people from Chiapas to Matamoros, President Felipe Calderon, of the conservative National Action Party, called on the developed world to step up efforts to limit CO2 emissions. In Pakistan, the wettest monsoon in 80 years led to floods that killed 1,500 people and displaced millions. British foreign secretary William Hague—a former leader of the Conservative Party—warned that such disasters mean that dealing with climate change "is perhaps the 21st century's biggest foreign policy challenge."
"Climate change has pushed us beyond the bounds of previous extremes," says Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. "It's important to get across that we have already reached this point."
The United States suffered its own string of climate anomalies. Last year Tennessee experienced a 1,000-year flood, and in the summer thousands of heat records were broken, including a blistering 113-degree day in Los Angeles.
Here's where U.S. exceptionalism comes in: While European conservatives like Hague, French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and German chancellor Angela Merkel have taken tough action on climate change, the Republican Party remains nearly unanimous in denying it's a problem. Half of the new GOP freshman class in Congress is made up of global-warming deniers. Meanwhile, NASA's James Hansen predicts new record-high temperatures for 2012, along with even more nasty weather.