Climate change makes a variety of extreme weather events more likely and more intense, including heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, and superstorms. A growing body of science makes that clear. That literature — coupled with the astonishing number of off-the-charts extreme weather events of the past few years — is why more and more climate scientists and meteorologists and others are making the connection.
The normally reliable Science magazine, however, seems to be stuck in the last decade. They have run a muddled piece on the subject, “In the Hot Seat.” It opens:
Many climate scientists winced earlier this year when a well-meaning nonscientist tried to use extreme weather to argue that global warming is real. “We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science — and act before it’s too late.”
That was President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address. The fact is, there is little or no evidence that global warming steered Sandy into New Jersey or made the storm any stronger. And scientists haven’t even tried yet to link climate change with particular fires.
But the article doesn’t cite a single climate scientist actually complaining about Obama’s statement. I don’t know any climate scientists who winced at it. But some winced at this article.
One of the world’s most honored and most cited climatologists, Michael E. Mann, Director of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center, wrote me:
It is very disappointing to see veteran science journalist Dick Kerr buy into many of the common fallacies regarding the impact of climate change on extreme weather. Chief among these is the notion that just because somebody hasn’t done a formal attribution study of a particular event, that event somehow must not have been influenced by climate change. Kerr is wrong when he claims that climate change didn’t influence the characteristics and impacts of hurricane Sandy. He is wrong when he implies that climate change has not worsened drought in North America in recent years. And he is wrong when he implies that climate change has not played a role in the increasingly widespread and devastating forest fires in the US in recent years.
Obama’s point is well stated. He doesn’t say that these events were caused by climate change. He was making the scientifically-supported statement that climate change is making them more frequent and intense — and it’s only going to get worse if we don’t act.
How do we know that’s what Obama was saying? Because that’s what he says in the part of his speech that Science magazine left out!
Yes, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods -– all are now more frequent and more intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy….
Nothing to wince about here except Science magazine taking the president out of context.
It is particularly troublesome for Science to open with criticism of Obama’s probabilistic statement about droughts when they themselves end the piece citing scientists who support that probabilistic assessment:
By consulting climate records and modeling extreme events with and without added greenhouse gases, scientists can talk about how much global warming has increased the chances of extreme events — without blaming any one event on warming. For example, a NOAA and U.K. Met Office study published in the July 2012 Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society found that heat waves like the one that scorched Texas in 2011 are now 20 times as likely to occur as they were 50 years ago given the same conditions in the tropical Pacific that favor them.
How is that any different than what Obama said about droughts?
As for Sandy, there’s little doubt that global warming worsened its impact. In particular, a September study by NOAA researchers found, “climate-change related increases in sea level have nearly doubled today’s annual probability of a Sandy-level flood recurrence as compared to 1950.” And as we reported, Dr. Jennifer Francis, one of the world’s leading experts on the connection between climate change and extreme weather, said last month of Sandy’s link to climate change, “the case has strengthened.”
Science magazine asserts, “As long as reporters and the public insist on blurring climate change and run-of-the-mill weather, however, experts must manage as best they can.” That is a true straw man. The story is not about “run-of-the-mill weather” — unless you think Superstorm Sandy was “run of the mill.”
The whole reason people are talking about the climate connection is because we are seeing off-the-charts superstorms, droughts, heat waves, and wildfires. In September 2011, for instance, the Texas Forest Service said of the state’s wildfires:
“This is unprecedented fire behavior. No one on the face of this Earth has ever fought fires in these extreme conditions.”
As CP’s Tom Kenworthy reported this summer, “The seven largest fire years since 1960 have all occurred since 2000. In 2006, 2007, and last year, the toll exceeded 9 million acres, an area roughly equivalent to Maryland and Rhode Island combined.”
Leading experts have been speaking out on the climate-wildfire link. Dave Cleaves, climate adviser to the head of the U.S. Forest Service, has said: “We are now completely certain that there is a climate signal in the observed fire activity.” Dan Oltrogge, who for years was one of the country’s leading firefighters, has said, “I can tell you as a matter of fact that climate change is a key contributor to what we’ve been dealing with the last 10 to 12 years.” Forest Service chief Thomas Tidwell told Congress two years ago that his agency faces conditions of higher temperatures, earlier mountain snowmelt, and much longer fire seasons, which “our scientists believe … is due to a change in climate.”
Finally, Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, has written:
The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question. All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be….
The air is on average warmer and moister than it was prior to about 1970 and in turn has likely led to a 5–10 % effect on precipitation and storms that is greatly amplified in extremes. The warm moist air is readily advected onto land and caught up in weather systems as part of the hydrological cycle, where it contributes to more intense precipitation events that are widely observed to be occurring.
Science magazine has asked the wrong question and given the wrong answer.