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Akst: Phil’s formidable challenge

I’m worried about Phil.

His report tomorrow – by far his most important project of the year – just about can’t be on target because the numbers fluctuate wildly almost every day. Then there’s the petty politics and budget cuts.

That’s a lot of pressure for anybody, let alone Marmota monax, better known as the groundhog.

Phil, of course, is Punxsutawney Phil, the famous rodent whose prognostication on Groundhog Day [Saturday] foretells the outcome of winter.

According to The History Channel, Feb. 2 falls midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox and is a significant day in several ancient and modern traditions.

Perhaps most directly related was the German tradition of pronouncing the day sunny “only if badgers and other animals glimpsed their own shadows.” When German immigrants settled Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries, they transplanted the custom, choosing the groundhog as the annual forecaster.

The first official Groundhog Day celebration was Feb. 2, 1887, in Punxsutawney, Pa. A local newspaper editor thought up the festival. (History has several examples of editors creating festivals. One in Minnesota started what became the American Cancer Society’s Great American Smokeout.)

Anyway, the spectacle of Groundhog Day speaks for itself.

Let’s talk about the point of Groundhog Day: the weather.

This week, we saw lows in the teens, ice, sleet, record-breaking warmth, thunderstorms, flooding and snow. My snow blower languishes in the garage, sleds are dry and dusty, and it’s unlikely that serious progress on climate change is going to happen soon.

When politicians speak of a “broad consensus” on climate change, they aren’t just being rhetorical. The Environmental Protection Agency says major U.S. scientific agencies (including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) “agree that climate change is occurring and that humans are contributing to it.”

The National Research Council concluded in 2010 that “Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural

The average surface temperature worldwide has risen almost one degree Fahrenheit in the past 40 years. Humidity has risen about 4 percent since 1970, nearly a third of the United States is experiencing summer minimum temperatures much above normal, and about 7 percent of the U.S. is getting an elevated portion of precipitation from extreme events.

So why the debate?

Those who deny human-accelerated climate change do so based largely on the premise that we can’t positively conclude that climate change is real or accelerated by humans because “the science isn’t in.”

Perhaps a better way to think about it is in National Geographic’s September cover story. That’s the best, fairest, most apolitical article I’ve read on climate change (and, of course, the photography is magnificent).

Gerald Meehl, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, likened climate change to a baseball player on steroids.

“This baseball player steps up to the plate and hits a home run. It’s impossible to say if he hit that home run because of the steroids, or whether he would have hit it anyway. The drugs just made it more likely.”

By adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, Meehl says, “It makes things a little bit warmer and shifts the odds toward these more extreme events.”

Not to minimize the economy, immigration and international chaos, but climate change needs to get on our radar (pun intended). As National Geographic notes, losses from weather disasters cost an estimated $150 billion worldwide in 2011. In the United States in 2011, a record 14 events caused a billion dollars or more damage each.

Good luck, Phil.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University.
You can reach him at

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