In a case of climate malpractice, too many journalists and scientists are now overemphasizing the difficulty of understanding anthropogenic warming’s influence on weather. Right now, this is how many climate scientists and the journalists who cover climate are talking about the unprecedented weather phenomena during the hottest year in recorded history:
“it is impossible to blame mankind for single severe weather events”
“language—which suggests that we can, in fact, attribute specific weather events to global warming—should be strictly avoided”
“the usual caveat that no current weather event can be said to be ’caused’ by climate change”
“As we continually stress, one extreme weather event, or even a series of weather events, is not caused by global warming or climate change”
“you cannot say a single event or a single summer is unequivocally due to climate change — by definition it’s weather, and not climate”
“a single weather event cannot be blamed on climate change”
“climate change cannot be said to cause an individual event”
“You can’t attribute any single weather-related event to a hotter planet”
If this is how our doctors worked, then sick patients would hear nonsense like this:
Sure, you’ve been diagnosed with AIDS. Sure, you have a rare, malignant cancer that is only seen in 1 out of 500,000 healthy people and is common in AIDS patients. But one cannot conclude 100 percent that this is caused by your full-blown AIDS. One must observe your life-threatening symptoms over many years to draw conclusions in terms of AIDS. You cannot say unequivocally a single outbreak or a single cancer is unequivocally due to HIV — by definition it’s a disease, and not an immune deficiency syndrome.
Many journalists and climate scientists repeat the maxim “no single weather event can be attributed to global warming” as if it is an absolute verity, not a useful but overly simplistic rule of thumb. Fortunately, other scientists like Michael Tobis and journalists like the Associated Press’s Charles Hanley understand how to properly express the catastrophic influence of fossil fuel pollution on our climate.
Stories time and again claim that it is “impossible” to link anthropogenic climate change with an individual extreme event. While attribution, strictly defined, may be very challenging, it is not necessarily an impossibility. Many kinds of events, in particular ones that have a historical precedent, could have occurred in an alternate reality that doesn’t include manmade greenhouse gases. “It can still be problematic to blame a specific individual extreme weather event on climate change,” Peter Stott, head of climate monitoring and attribution at the UK Met Office, properly explains, “because there have always been extremes of weather around the world.”
However, there can also be individual events which would be either extremely unlikely or physically implausible without greenhouse forcing. Scientists have the capacity to determine influence and attribution for weather phenomena from global forcing for which the physical processes are well understood. When we’re talking about unprecedented mesoscale phenomena — like a season-long Eurasian heatwave during a solar minimum — or phenomena with multi-annual latency — like the record temperatures of the Lake Superior or decline of Greenland ice mass, then natural variability is not a plausible explanation.
More importantly, this is a frustratingly moot question. We have exactly one planet to live on, and it’s one whose climate system is now being driven by manmade pollution. The coming changes which are known with absolute certainty — sea level rise, glacial decline, ocean acidification — presage suffering on an apocalyptic scale. There is no alternate planet with everything the same except with pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide to compare against. Weather phenomena are determined through physical processes by the state of the ocean-atmosphere system, making greenhouse pollution one of the causative agents of today’s weather. And yet energy is expended on semantic knots over the words “cause,” “attribute,” and “influence” — as if that matters. The simple reality is, as Wally Broecker once said:
The climate is an angry beast, and we’re poking it with sticks.