Weather Extremes Linked to Climate Change

The nonprofit Environment America just released a new report detailing the connection between global warming and extreme weather—one that makes it clear not only that such catastrophic weather events are happening more often, but that they are quickly becoming the norm across the U.S. The report begins with the sobering news that since 2006, weather-related disasters have impacted four out of five Americans. And as years go, 2011 had an unusually high number of such disasters including: an exceptionally hot summer in Texas which “triggered an exceptional drought that ruined crops and led to the state’s worst wildfire season”; the hottest summer ever recorded in a state in Oklahoma; the wettest spring on record in parts of the upper Plains, with massive flooding along the Missouri River, and in the Ohio River Valley with damaging flooding of the Mississippi River; the third-biggest snowfall on record in Chicago and the heaviest October snowfall across much of the Northeast.

Many of these weather extremes are likely to be exacerbated by global warming, according to scientists, including heavy precipitation, droughts, heat waves and hurricanes. The report acknowledges that 2011’s La Niña event—characterized by unusually cold ocean temperatures at the equator in the Pacific Ocean—contributed to the wild weather fluctuations, but also that the record-breaking nature of these weather events, and their frequency, point to the increasing role of global warming. They write: “The hardship and damage caused by weather-related disasters in 2011 should serve as a reminder of the stakes at play in the fight against global warming, and further motivate the United States to shift quickly away from polluting energy sources that put our climate and our health at risk.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its own report—“Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation”—in November 2011. Based on research and data from more than 80 authors, 19 review editors and 100 contribuiting authors from all over the world, the report concluded that it is likely that increases in human-caused greenhouse gas emissions “have led to warming of extreme daily minimum and maximum temperatures at the global scale.” Also likely, that report found, was that these increased emissions had contributed to “extreme coastal high water,” while there was medium confidence “that anthropogenic influences have contributed to intensification of extreme precipitation at the global scale.” Still, the report notes that “Attribution of single extreme events to anthropogenic climate change is challenging.”

Environment America concluded that it is not too late to institute the changes needed to cut carbon emissions and rein in the disastrous weather impacts of climate change to come. They call for strong energy efficiency standards for buildings, appliances, equipment and vehicles; more comprehensive renewable electricity and clean fuel standards; greater investment in public transportation and clean transportation; and serious regulations to address pollutants, clean up pollution and to strengthen cap-and-trade programs.

Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and John Kerry (D-MA) joined the nonprofit in releasing the report. As Kerry said in a related release: “Years and years of peer reviewed scientific studies should’ve been motivation enough for Washington to get serious about climate change instead of denying its consequences and ducking tough choices. This study is the latest and the last red alert that inaction is risking lives here at home. This is not business as usual for Mother Nature. I’ve never in my life seen the extreme weather patterns I’ve witnessed with my own eyes the last years in New England, and I’m sick and tired of politicians ducking the issue and finding excuses for inaction or worse. At this point, you’re either on the side of dealing with reality or you’re against it.”