As floods and extreme weather devastate the world, CBS News explains the link to global warming.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BrazilIn the past year, every continent except Antarctica has seen record-breaking floods. Rains submerged one-fifth of Pakistan, a thousand-year deluge swamped Nashville and storms just north of Rio caused the deadliest landslides Brazil has ever seen.

Southern France and northern Australia had floods, too. Sri Lanka, South Africa, the list goes on.

And while no single weather event can be linked definitively to global climate change, a growing number of scientists say these extreme events represent the face of a warming world.

“Any one of these events is remarkable,” said Jay Gulledge, senior scientist for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. “But all of this taken together could not happen without the extra heat that’s in the ocean. It defies common sense to overlook that link.”

When even the national media starts to explain the link to human-caused global warming, you know the weather has become extreme (see Munich Re: “The only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change”).  ABC News coverage has been outstanding.  And now CBS News story publishes a crystal clear explanation of the link:

That link works more or less like this. Concentrations of greenhouse gases are the highest the earth has seen in 15 million years. These gases trap heat, warming both the air and the oceans. Warmer oceans give off more moisture, and a warmer atmosphere can hold more of it in suspension. The more moisture in the air, the more powerful storms tend to grow. When these supercharged weather systems hit land, they don’t just turn into rain or snow, they become cyclones, blizzards and floods.

“There is a lot of tropical moisture in the atmosphere that is getting transported over very long distances and is dropping out in various places around the world in dramatic fashion,” Gulledge said.

Last year tied with 2005 as the warmest on record, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And floods in 2010 weren’t the only extremes.

In Russia, 15,000 people died during a record heat wave. Australia suffered its warmest summer on record. Pakistan witnessed its hottest day in history, as did Los Angeles. The U.S. East Coast has struggled under unusually heavy snows for two winters running. The Brazilian Amazon suffered one of the worst droughts in its history. And even as the Brazilian government recovered the bodies of those killed by record storms in the state of Rio de Janeiro, it trucked drinking water to cities in the north blighted by drought.

Weather like this matches the predictions of numerous recent climate studies. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted that severe droughts and heavy rains were already on the rise in many parts of the world, and linked them to the surge in greenhouse gases. A study published last year by the National Academy of Sciences predicted an increase in heavy rainfall of somewhere between 3 and 10 percent for every Celsius degree of warming. Each additional degree would also cause the amount of area burned by wildfires in North America to double or quadruple, according to the same report.

“If you think it’s bad now — when we’ve had about 0.7 degrees Celsius of warming — wait until we’ve had 3 or 4,” Gulledge said. “There’s absolutely no reason to think it will not continue getting worse and worse and worse.”

The only unscientific thing in this story, really, is that it ends with an online poll.

But otherwise it has quite a thoughtful explanation of what may be happening.

Some scientists are starting to worry that natural weather patterns, which played a role in some of the biggest recent flooding, are also showing effects of human-driven climate change. This year’s rainy season in Australia is linked to a phenomenon called a La Nina, which occurs when water in the equatorial region of the Pacific is cooler than normal.

La Nina and its warm-water counterpart, El Nino, are part of a natural pattern of ocean currents and atmospheric winds that redistribute heat by moving it from one part of the world to another. Even as La Nina and El Nino influence the overall climate, much like organs in a body, they may remain vulnerable to system-wide shocks, said Paul Mayewski, director of the Climate Change Institute at The University of Maine.

So far scientists have found no definitive link between rising greenhouse gases and changes to El Nino and La Nina events. But Mayewski thinks that might be changing.

“This is a naturally occurring phenomenon,” Mayewski said. “That doesn’t mean it can’t be impacted by humans.”

He is investigating whether greenhouse gases may have so disturbed the balance of heat that natural patterns, like El Nino and La Nina, may begin to speed up and intensify.

“We may very well be changing this El Nino-La Nina system much faster and more radically,” Mayewski said. “It’s a naturally occurring system that we may be giving a lot more push to.”

And, if he’s right, that could mean even less stable, more extreme weather in the foreseeable future.

For some agencies working to help countries prevent and recover from natural disasters, there’s no question that they’re getting worse.

“There was never any doubt in our mind that, in reality, the frequency and severity and number of people that were affected kept increasing,” said Margareta Wahlstrom, the United Nations’ assistant secretary general for disaster risk reduction.

In an increasingly urbanized world, people, goods and infrastructure are concentrated, meaning that each natural disaster has the potential to cause an unprecedented amount of damage.

“The losses are increasing very rapidly,” Wahlstrom said. “Today is decision time. We know what the risks are. We can see the trends.”

… While natural disasters tend to be more deadly in developing countries, this last year has shown extreme weather can strike planet-wide.

“The attitude that many of us probably have lived with for decades, because we’ve lived in fairly safe countries, is that disasters are something that happens to others,” Wahlstrom said. “That is no longer viable.”

Hear!  Hear!

For a good review of some of the recent extreme weather, Wonk Room’s “Global Boiling: Floods Devastate The World

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42 Responses to As floods and extreme weather devastate the world, CBS News explains the link to global warming.

  1. paulm says:

    So now that there is something tangible at the end of the string, the MSM can gallop with it.

    It really is human nature not to react to non existential threats.

  2. Daniel Ives says:

    What the heck is going on with the MSM lately on its climate reporting? It’s like their good science jouranlists were all in a coma and have suddenly been woken up. This is great! It’s nice to finally get some hope and positive news on this blog (no offense Joe, reality is what it is, and I appreciate your reporting, even if it is often disheartening).

    Any theories on why the reporting in the MSM has been improving? Did they finally hit the point where all the recent disasters and extreme weather were just too glaring and obvious to go unreported?

  3. Mike Roddy says:

    ABC deserves credit for providing cover for CBS to step up and actually, um, do some reporting. Let’s see if this will extend to discrediting those who claim that floods are caused by things like ocean currents and solar cycles.

    There have been people all along in CBS, ABC, and NBC who have been tormented by becoming denier mouthpieces through pressure from ownership and advertisers, and probably driven to the bottle over it, too. Now that there’s been a little daylight, let’s see if they now can go all the way.

    The deniers, coached as they are by oil funded PR companies, eventually will have to waffle and backtrack, and will mine clever phrases and weasel words as part of this effort. They should not be allowed to get away with this, and need to be held accountable, losing credibility forever.

  4. K Nockels says:

    And yet the melting of the Artic just looks like big money to most!

  5. Tom Lenz says:

    Too bad the President Of the United States and one of the most powerful persons on this planet isn’t paying attention.

  6. Kermit says:

    “…all the recent disasters and extreme weather were just too glaring and obvious to go unreported”
    This, I think.

    Hopefully the MSM will give this the attention they gave to the Monica Lewinsky affair. I should think the videos from these various disasters provides a good feed for the news-in-a-minute format. People were frightened by the repeated exposure to the 9-11 attacks here in the Colonies; perhaps frequent visuals of the latest disasters around the world, with different countries each time, will start to give them a more accurate grasp (for once!) of the real dangers they are facing.

  7. Tom Lenz says:

    Good for you CBS! Now put it on the air!! It won’t have meaningful impact until people can see it on their teevees. You too ABC! Stumbling onto the truth and burying it somewhere in the back pages is not enough. This is a moral issue.

  8. Daniel Ives says:

    RE Tom Lenz #5

    I share that frustration. Coming off the hottest year on record, and hottest decade on record, and with the numerous recent extreme weather events, the President couldn’t have had a stronger position to fight from, had he chosen to, to push for climate policy. He had the chance to take the offensive, especially against so many freshmen Congressmen that are adament deniers. If there was every a time to call them out and bring the fight to them, now is it.

  9. Wes Rolley says:

    This is good, but I will start believing that there has been a real change when Christiane Amanpour and David Gregory, Jim Lehrer, Bob Schieffe, et. al. start nailing their guests with hard questions.

  10. Colorado Bob says:

    Joe , this number is wrong :

    In Russia, 15,000 people died during a record heat wave.

    Belgium-based Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED).

    The CRED found that the summer heatwave in Russia was the second deadliest disaster of the year, leaving 55,736 people dead according to figures it compiled from insurers and media reports of official sources.

  11. Anand says:

    “Every continent has seen floods…”

    I get it. The flooding in Pakistan occurred in the continent of Asia.

  12. Tonight’s top story: CBS has just discovered the most important news story – now has caught up to the year 1989.

  13. Tom Lenz says:


    Lets not forget the historic opportunity lost during BP’s little mess last summer. Joe is right, Obama could have taken that and used it to re-frame the entire national debate on the environment and energy but he chose business as usual. Just as he did last night in the SOTU. Serious disappointment here.

  14. Colorado Bob says:

    SA facing ‘months’ of rain

    South Africa was warned on Wednesday to brace for months of heavy rains and storms as the government admitted it could have been better prepared for floods that have killed more than 120 people.

  15. Colorado Bob says:

    ‘Bride of the Red Sea’ drowns once more amid non-stop rain

    JEDDAH: Intense rain on Wednesday triggered heavy flooding once again in Jeddah, causing traffic jams and power outages across the city and even sparking fires, including one at the popular Hera Mall.

  16. Peter M says:

    Perhaps the MSM is beginning to realize that the extreme climate events will not go away- and are increasing. They seem to realize they may need to cover their asses.

  17. Daniel Ives says:

    Tom # 13

    Indeed I agree again, the failure of Obama to capitalize politically on the BP spill to push for clean energy was not just disappointing, but embarassing. He didn’t just choose BAU, his administration chose to low-ball the estimates and make it seem much less alarming to the public.

    And I also feel less than impressed by his SOTU speech. For a second I was impressed by his call to end oil subsidies and tax breaks, before I realized that he must know there is no chance Congress would pass that. Even the 111th Congress wouldn’t have passed that. And I was excited when I thought he called for an 80% by 2030 renewable energy standard, but it turns out it was for “clean energy,” which according to Obama includes gas and coal. Serious disappointment indeed.

  18. PSU Grad says:

    Daniel Ives #16

    “For a second I was impressed by his call to end oil subsidies and tax breaks, before I realized that he must know there is no chance Congress would pass that.”

    But I think that’s precisely the point. Imagine the powerful weapon you have if the following happens:

    1. Congress says we must cut all forms of discretionary domestic spending to cut the deficit.

    2. Congress says we must not increase taxes on anybody, even the wealthiest, because….

    3. Congress says we can’t remove the subsidies for highly profitable oil and coal companies, because….

    This will show the utter lack of seriousness of many of the so-called “deficit hawks”. Giving hard earned taxpayer subsidies to highly profitable oil and gas companies? Really?

  19. catman306 says:

    Mr. Obama:

    “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

    Who coined the phrase you’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem?

    It’s actually a very old African proverb. Eldridge Cleaver adapted it in a speech he made.

    Read more:'re_either_part_of_the_solution_or_you're_part_of_the_problem#ixzz1CAuwLrWK're_either_part_of_the_solution_or_you're_part_of_the_problem#ixzz1CAudwPZY

  20. darth says:

    Wow even the comments at the CBS site are only a couple of trolls and they are being schooled by posts with actual facts. This gives me some hope.

  21. Leif says:

    While it may be true that no singular weather event can be blamed exclusively on global warming it is also true that EVERY weather event has a global warming component to it.

  22. nz says:

    The politics cannot catch up too soon with the science to mobilize action against climate change at wartime speed as Earth Policy Institute’s Lester R Brown has proposed in his books Plan B 4.0 and World on the Edge; an idea which seems to be gaining momentum.

    Daily news coverage of this evolving catastrophe is inevitable.

  23. SecularAnimist says:

    I have a quibble about what Joe describes as a “crystal clear” explanation:

    “The more moisture in the air, the more powerful storms tend to grow. When these supercharged weather systems hit land, they don’t just turn into rain or snow, they become cyclones, blizzards and floods.”

    It seems to me that this is conflating two distinct links to global warming:

    1. “More moisture in the air” which leads to extreme precipitation events (“blizzards and floods”), and

    2. More energy available from warmer oceans and air which leads to “more powerful storms … cyclones”.

    Am I wrong?

    Again, it’s a quibble. The notable thing is that a major US media outlet is even reporting on the link between AGW and the worldwide onslaught of devastating weather extremes, and giving a reasonably accurate and clear account of the science, without “balancing” it with the lies of denialists.

  24. Leif says:

    Gosh Gang, wouldn’t it be nice to lavish praise for good Journalism every day?

    It has been a long haul.

  25. Wit's End says:

    Here’s a pretty decent explanation as to how the record winters fit into AGW theory (although it is of course full of the usual caveats):

    and here for all those who wonder what climate hawks can do, is a terrific suggestion from the author of “HOT”:

    “Which is why I will go to Washington the week of January 31 to confront the climate cranks—in Congress, in the media and in the corporate sector—and try to stop them from further sabotaging our response to the climate crisis. My partners in this effort will include the group Kids vs Global Warming, whose iMatter march aims to put a million kids in the streets on Mother’s Day to demand that our leaders address climate change as if our children’s future matters; Grist, America’s leading environmental news website; The Nation; and other organizations still to be determined.

    On the ground in Washington I will be joined by local young people—activist members of Generation Hot. Our plan is to confront the climate cranks face to face, on camera, and call them to account for the dangers they have set in motion. We will highlight the ludicrousness of their antiscientific views, which alone should discredit them from further influence over US climate policies. And we will show how our nation could still change course—for example, if the federal government were to use its vast purchasing power to kick-start a green energy revolution that would create jobs and prosperity across the land. We welcome your help and constructive suggestions for how to achieve these goals and invite you to join us. (You can find out more and get involved by visiting the Generation Hot Facebook page.)

    …Our initiative, Confront the Climate Cranks, will do just that: confront the cranks on camera and accompanied by some of the children they have put in danger. We will video all of our confrontations and then quickly make them available to the public—by posting them on YouTube and sharing them with mainstream and alternative media and the social networks of our partner organizations. (In the run-up to these confrontations, we will invite the participation of the members or readers of The Nation, Grist, Kids vs Global Warming and the other partnering organizations, polling them on which cranks to target, what questions to ask and so on. Thus we hope to build momentum before arriving in Washington, as well as generate continuing attention and activism after the confrontations.)

    By no means is our initiative alone sufficient to turn the tide in the climate fight, but we believe it can make a valuable contribution, especially if others lend a hand. By naming and shaming the climate cranks, we hope to shift the political terrain of the climate fight. By highlighting the specific climate impacts that have already begun and will intensify in the coming years, we aim to shift the debate away from abstract ideology toward the actual consequences the cranks have wrought for Generation Hot. And by conveying our message through children and parents, we can reach the ordinary Americans whose support is essential to overcoming the power of money and insider status in Washington. We hope you’ll join us.”

  26. Leif #20 – You say it so well.
    It is a truth that is deliberately forgotten… especially by television weather people. That is the next breakthrough in media needed. And such a small statement but a crucial truth.

  27. Steve Bloom says:

    SecularAnimist, they’re of a piece. It takes a lot of energy to move that moisture into the air.

  28. Andy says:

    This is very heartening, and we all should be telling CBS this is a good story that will attract more readers than the normal he said/she said empty-headed baloney. I have recently detected (at AGU and through efforts such as the CC Rapid Response Team) a greater willingness on the part of climate scientists (and all scientists) to go at it with the deniers rather than just ignore them. I think this demonstration of conviction and unwillingness to be bullied is having an impact. What do y’all think?

    I say the test of my hypothesis will be if Reps. Issa and Upton really carry through on their campaign threats to investigate climate scientists (Issa has already back-tracked some), or if they just twitter their BS like Palin.

  29. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Yes, the turn to rationality of the MSM propaganda apparatus so suddenly, so synchronistically (morphic fields, perhaps)is mysterious, if welcome. And twenty years late. Let us pray that it is not too late.

  30. Artful Dodger says:

    Bravo CBS! Still, not quite there yet… while the reports links CO2 to extreme weather, it does not link Humanity to increased CO2.

    Most seasoned readers here at CP can imagine which Skeptic mime will be used to deny, decry, and delay this story: NOT Ready for Prime Time.

  31. George Ennis says:

    It seems the polar bears need some help from those denying AGW in locating the Arctic Sea ice. This news item from a Canadian news media outlet.

  32. ozajh says:

    Very minor technical quibble (of the sort which, unfortunately, gets used far too often to sow seeds of doubt against scientists by the denialosphere).

    El Nino/La Nina are, I believe, basically driven by the Southern Oscillation Index. This is a temperature RATIO rather than an absolute number.

    The equatorial Pacific water off Peru doesn’t actually have to be ‘cooler than normal’ if the water in the Timor area is WARMER than normal.

  33. Artful Dodger says:

    George Ennis @ 30: That Polar bear swam continuously for 9 days and over 600 km to reach the pack ice, far out in the Beaufort Sea. In the process, she lost her cub at sea. Most important to understand, this occurred during Sep/Oct 2008 (it was only reported now). There have now been 4 consecutive years of critical habitat loss for Polar Bears in the Beaufort region.

  34. Esop says:

    #30 (George): I suggest that Steven Goddard is sent up there to help the polar bears. He seems to be very good at “finding” ice where there is none.

  35. Raul M. says:

    Wit’s End @ 24,
    Never seen it so well said before in my life.
    very tall order and good course of action.

  36. Cinnamon Girl says:

    In case this hasn’t been posted in other parts of CP:

    “Food prices to rocket by 50% as global hunger epidemic causes riots and famines”

    Maybe this is a veiled push for GMOs, but there is this climate bit:

    “At the same time, climate change will increase the risk of droughts, floods and crop failures – creating a ‘perfect storm’ of food shortages and above-inflation rises in prices.”

  37. Wit's End says:

    “But the storm proved to be much more powerful than forecasters originally predicted.”

    Why was I not surprised?

  38. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    So much of the Australian media just don’t report most of the flooding elsewhere. Brazil got a mention, Pakistan got a mention, The Philippines flood was well buried in the international news.

    If you don’t mention the dots no one gets to join them. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation is an exception, but even they let Bob Carter go unchallenged. (Deltoid has a blog on it)

    Cold weather in the UK and US gets massive coverage. Floods rather less. Even the bad climate news is presented with a positive spin, wheat prices look to be rather good this year.

  39. J Bowers says:

    I think it’s worth pointing that even though the headline grabbing Pakistan floods have subsided (though large areas still remain underwater) the human tragedy in Pakistan continues, six months on, with roughly half a million people still in temporary shelters through a bitterly cold winter.

    “Sub-zero winter temperatures have increased diseases of chest infections, including influenza and pneumonia, with over 200,000 cases reported in the second week of January alone. In the south, swathes of land – both homesteads and agricultural – remain under contaminated water,”

    If the same were to happen two or even three years in a row, then one can only guess at the subsequent misery, and I suspect that guess would understimate the consequences by a considerable factor.

  40. mauri pelto says:

    It is not just the snowstorms that have been significant but the snowmelt. In 2010 we had by far the largest spring snow melt as expressed by the Rutgers Global Snow lab data, subtracting the end of February extent from the end of April extent for the last 44 years.

  41. Marc A says:

    I don’t think anyone else has said it yet: there is a correlation between relentless, strong, but fair criticism and better climate reporting. Joe has been tireless in holding the the media to account. Kudos to you, sir.

    We should all congratulate the news team on this story and generate a positive feedback!

  42. Cinnamon Girl says:

    Marc @ #40: Damn straight, and seconded!