Rod Berning remembers the thunderstorms. From the time he was a boy, they gathered dark and powerful in the afternoon, a summertime staple almost as regular as the sunset, and quenched the west Kansas fields his family has farmed for three generations.
The storm clouds don't gather as they once did, Berning said, looking out over a ruined corn crop withering beneath a blistering sun on land that has had less than an inch of rain since the corn was planted on the 5th of May.
"The climate is changing. The storms aren't coming as frequent as they did," said Berning. “There's no normal anymore."
Across much of the country, some Americans are chalking up this summer's heat, drought, and wildfires to the vagaries and variables of natural weather patterns. Others see in the harshness of nature the signs of a long-term shift, one that looks a lot like what climate scientists have been warning about for years, if not decades.
In testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on Wednesday, climate expert Christopher Field, a member of the National Academy of Sciences who has published more than 200 peer-reviewed papers on climate change, stated, "The link between climate change and the kinds of extremes that lead to disasters is clear."
More Americans appear to be connecting those dots, in the wake of this summer's scorching conditions. By mid-July, 70 percent of Americans believed climate change is occurring, up from 65 percent last March, according to polls taken during those months by the University of Texas. "That's quite a difference in a very short period of time," poll director Sheril Kirshenbaum said in a telephone interview. The question on her mind: "Are people going to forget, or is this a new trend?"
One reason public attitudes have shifted -- at least for now -- is the extent of the heat. The summer drought has dried up 64 percent of the continental United States, devastating crops like Berning's across the nation's midsection, from the Great Plains to the Ohio Valley and throughout most of the south. Half of the nation's corn crop is lost or in poor condition, along with nearly 60 percent of the country's pasture land, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported at the end of July. Unable to graze their cattle on grass, ranchers have been forced to buy hay or other feed -- at skyrocketing costs -- or sell livestock at low prices to avoid having to feed them.
Farmers aren't the only ones feeling the pain. Rafting, boating, and fishing operations are being docked as water levels drop in lakes, rivers, and streams. Shipping on the Mississippi River has been curtailed, as water flows have fallen to one-third of normal levels for this time of year.
Consumers are just beginning to get whopping electricity and water bills to cover increased air conditioning and lawn sprinkler use. Come fall, they'll begin paying higher grocery bills, as the toll on the nation's ranches and farms moves through the supply chain.
"This corn crop will affect your beef, pork, poultry," said Berning. "Ultimately, the consumer gets the cost passed down to them."
Pocketbook issues tend to drive public opinion. Yet on the issue of climate change, the nation remains sharply divided along partisan lines-- abetted by the fossil fuel industry, which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to sow public doubt about what's happening to the planet. "Climate isn't just about science," said Kirshenbaum. "People come to the conversation with a lot of opinions, probably based on the news media that they watch and the politicians they hear," she said. "Culture is a big part of it."
One of the most conservative and reliably Republican states in the Union, Kansas is a place where climate change is as much a political issue as a force of nature. "There's no such thing as global warming," said one Kansas corn farmer, right after explaining to me the devastating impact this summer's conditions have had on his fields.
"It really illustrates the way that climate has been -- or is -- such a partisan issue," explained Kirshenbaum. It also highlights the ongoing difficulty of converting public opinion into policy changes, despite the growing evidence of damaging climate disruptions.
"The question of whether the earth is warming is no longer in doubt," Field testified at Wednesday's senate hearing. “We're seeing … the kinds of weather and climate disasters that can have profound effects on agriculture, on industry, and on infrastructure."
And yet his views still weren't enough to sway the climate deniers on the committee, chief among them Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, who has famously called climate change a "hoax" and written a book meant to make that case.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, nobody likes to see farmers and ranchers struggling to raise the nation's food in the face of searing heat and widening drought. It’s all the more crucial, therefore, that we recognize the role climate change is playing in reshaping the face of the country. To do anything less would be a betrayal to the farmers, families, and communities we all depend on to put food on our tables. The question is if we, as a nation, will learn the lessons of this summer -- whether we will act on them going forward and insist that our policy makers do the same.
Images: Melanie Blanding