Breaking News: Global Warming Makes Heat Waves More Severe

Okay, so it isn’t breaking news, or at least it shouldn’t be. A 2004 study in Nature examined the role of greenhouse gas emissions in the deadly 2003 heat wave that killed 35,000 Europeans. It concluded that human influence more than doubled the risk of such a heat wave. On our current emissions path, more than half of European summers will be hotter than 2003 within the next four decades. By the end of the century, “2003 would be classed as an anomalously cold summer relative to the new climate.”

But most U.S. coverage of our recent heat wave ignores the subject. I was interviewed by ABC Evening News last week because of my work on urban heat islands, whereby dark roofs and asphalt pavement and the loss of shade trees have made cities much hotter than they would otherwise be. Although I discussed how global warming is making this kind of deadly heat wave more likely and more intense””and combining with the heat island effect to make cities increasingly inhospitable in the summer””they omitted all of these comments. They wanted only a story on heat islands.

Fortunately, a few articles have begun to appear on the subject, even if they don’t make the front page like the scenes of people sweltering. The Washington Post‘s Juliet Eilperin wrote one of the best articles on the subject, “More Frequent Heat Waves Linked to Global Warming,” for a page 3 story last week.

She repeats the now famous mantra of all reporters covering the link between global warming and extreme weather: “While it is impossible to attribute any one weather event to climate change,” but then she continues

several recent studies suggest that human-generated emissions of heat-trapping gases have produced both higher overall temperatures and greater weather variability, which raise the odds of longer, more intense heat waves.

She then discusses the Nature article and a new study “showing that since 1880 the duration of heat waves in Western Europe has doubled and the number of unusually hot days in the region has nearly tripled.”

As good a reporter as she is–and as obvious as the connection between global warming and increasingly severe heat waves is–she still feels obliged to find some “balancing” quotes, even including comments from a lobbyist “who represents coal-fired power plants”–always a good place to find a credible response to major peer-reviewed science.

Even so, it’s the best article on the subject I’ve seen in the popular media.

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