Drought has US leaders feeling the heat

The government could end up paying US$19 billion (Dh69bn) in crop insurance alone to farmers, as G20 countries plan an emergency session amid fears about the global food supply.

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DENTON, MARYLAND //Ken Simmons peered out from the cab of his tractor at the grey skies overhead.

"It's strange to talk about it in this weather," the 61-year-old farmer said as a rare downpour fell on the rural town of Denton in eastern Maryland. "But in the 40 years I've worked this land, I've never seen it this dry."

Freak rainfall aside, the numbers back him up. Last week, Maryland asked for disaster aid from the US federal government to help alleviate the effects of a drought that has hit the state hard. If granted, it will be the 20th US state to receive federal emergency aid because of record dryness that now covers 63 per cent of the country and has blighted this year's crops.

The government could end up paying as much as US$19 billion (Dh69bn) in crop insurance alone to farmers. And the G20 countries are now planning an emergency session at the end of the month to agree on a coordinated response to the soaring prices of soya beans and corn - the most common American crops - amid fears about the global food supply.

But it's not just the drought. Every state except four in the contiguous US - that is, not counting Alaska and Hawaii - have registered record temperatures this summer. According to the nation's meteorology office, July was the hottest month ever in continental US. The office has also predicted that this will be a record month for tropical storms and hurricanes.

Welcome to global warming, say scientists. But is anyone listening?

Some are. In an April poll, researchers at Yale University found that more than 70 per cent of Americans blamed global warming for an unusually mild winter this season and record temperatures last summer.

And stirrings in the scientific community are making it into the mainstream media. Last week, James Hansen, a Nasa scientist and one of America's leading climate researchers, published a study covering the last six decades of global temperatures, linking the increase in extreme weather around the globe to a "dramatic" rise in temperatures.

There was "virtually no other explanation" for weather events that used to be "extremely rare" than man-made climate change, Mr Hansen wrote in a Washington Post article that accompanied the study.

"Such events… will become even more frequent and more severe."

But where science cautions and people suspect, politicians lag. Three months before the presidential election, global warming has not registered on the campaign trail. The Republican candidate Mitt Romney's challenge to Barack Obama, the US president, is so far almost exclusively on the issues of unemployment, taxes and government spending.

Where energy policy has made it onto the agenda, it has been in the context of seeking so-called energy "independence" from imported oil, not on easing the countyr's dependence on fossil fuels.

Daniel Kessler, an activist with 350.org, an organisation that seeks to raise awareness about global warming, said energy policy debates suffered from "cognitive dissonance" that failed to take into account the "road we're on" towards catastrophic climate change.

"This is not esoteric, difficult-to-understand science. This is basic physics. It's also what's now observable in our daily lives. Climate change is here and it's getting worse."

US politicians, however, do not see any political capital in addressing the issue, Mr Kessler said, despite a public "clamouring" for solutions.

In part, the lack of debate was due to a poisonous political atmosphere dominated by extreme partisanship, said a US government official with close knowledge of climate negotiations. Even though more than 95 per cent of climate scientists agreed that humans were causing global warming, denial has become "almost an article of faith" among Republicans, said the official.

And public interest had dwindled after a 2010 climate bill that failed in the US senate.

But there are signs of change, and some American conservatives are beginning to worry at the party's anti-scientific position. Alex Bozmoski is director of the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, a conservative think tank dedicated to tackling climate change through private enterprise. The group believes a solution should be found by ending all fuel subsidies and introducing a carbon tax to be balanced by tax cuts in other areas.

Mr Bozmoski warned against any "alarmist appeal" to the immediate weather conditions. Nevertheless, he said conservatives should not waste time opposing scientific opinion.

"Instead of disputing climate science and ceding the whole policy discussion to the left, we conservatives need to step forward with a free-enterprise solution that doesn't grow government."

Time, however, is precious.

"The future is now," concluded Mr Hansen last week. "And it is hot."

And for farmers such as Mr Simmons, the extreme temperatures are a very personal experience.

"The world's changing," said Mr Simmons. "I've made it through this one in relatively good shape. But I can't take any more summers like this."