Mark Twain was wrong. He reputedly said, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Now we know we humans are doing plenty about the weather, and what we’re doing sure ain’t good!
This summer has brought dramatic evidence that the large-scale burning of fossil fuels — coal, oil and gas — is causing significant changes in our weather. July was the hottest month ever recorded and the overheating of our planet is causing weather events that are not just extreme, but downright bizarre.
Europe experienced record heat wave after heat wave this summer with tourists and locals alike seeking refuge in the famous fountains of Paris and just about any other place they could find to cool off. High temperature records were not just broken, but smashed. Meteorology professor Jason Furtado noted “the degree by which the records were broken is astounding.”
Alaska had record levels of heat and humidity that we would expect in Miami, not Anchorage. A weather station north of the Arctic Circle in Markusvinsa, Sweden recorded 94.6 degrees. Massive wildfires enveloped large sections of the globe. The area around the North Pole was lit up by hundreds of lightning strikes, the furthest north that lightning has ever been seen.
Of course, as Twain observed, the weather is a topic of conversation because it is so changeable. But the weather extremes of the past few years are not only due to the natural variability of weather. The floods, fires, storms and heat waves are exacerbated by global warming.
A new field of research known as attribution science is investigating the links between the heating of the planet and extreme weather events. Using advanced computation techniques, scientists are measuring the impacts of climate change and quantifying just how much climate change is responsible for extreme weather events, such as droughts, extreme flooding, stronger hurricanes, excessive heat and wildfires. The impact of climate change on the weather has been likened to a “performance enhancing drug.” As one scientist summed it up, albeit in a somewhat oversimplified fashion, climate change makes “the hot hotter, the dry drier and wet wetter.”
Attribution science does not seek to prove that climate change caused a specific incident of extreme weather, but rather investigates to what extent climate change has made the extreme event more likely or more severe. For example, an analysis of the record-breaking European heat wave this past summer found that global warming made the heat wave 10 times more likely to occur. It further found that climate change increased the maximum temperatures in the heat wave by more than 5 degrees.
Two years ago, Hurricane Harvey dumped 60 inches of rain on Texas, causing massive property damage. An attribution analysis found that climate disruption increased the rainfall by 30%, in large part because warmer temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico increased the hurricane’s strength, a warmer atmosphere held more moisture, and disruption of the jet stream caused the storm to stall.
Recently, there has been a major and long overdue change in public opinion regarding climate disruption. For many years, the climate lagged behind other issues in surveys of top public concerns. Perhaps that was because the projected impacts of warming our planet seemed too far out in the future to worry about. However, global warming has now emerged as one of the top issues in the presidential race. I believe more folks are concerned about climate disruption because they are learning about the consequences almost daily as they hear reports of wildfires, monster storms, droughts and heat waves of unprecedented severity.
Spencer Black served for 26 years in the state Legislature. He was chair of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee and the Assembly Democratic leader. Since leaving the Legislature, Black has been vice president for conservation for the national Sierra Club and adjunct professor of planning at UW-Madison.
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