This post was originally published at the National Journal’s Energy & Environmental Experts blog as a response to the question: Does global warming increase the risk of extreme weather?
The science is clear: Warmer temperatures accommodate more water vapor in the atmosphere. This in turn leads to more instability and increased risk of extreme storms and weather events. And we are indeed seeing more extreme precipitation events than a century ago, in line with the 1°F temperature increase over this time. Scientists have also measured increases in atmospheric water vapor and the height of the lower atmosphere (the tropopause) over the past three decades, consequences of a warmer atmosphere.
Of course, because climate is the accumulation of weather over a period of many years, any single storm, flood or wildfire cannot be singularly attributed to global warming. However, it seems very possible that we are now experiencing an altered climate regime that will only be definitively linked to human-caused climate change over the coming decades – through the rearview mirror of accumulated climate science.
The problem with waiting to act until all the nuances of the relationship between warming temperatures and extreme weather can be further established is that we may lose our chance to avoid what could be truly catastrophic impacts of a climate out of control.
In the year 2010, and the first half of 2011, we have seen extraordinarily wild weather, perhaps the most extreme set of weather events on Earth in more than a century. Meteorologist Jeff Masters, Ph.D, co-founder of the website “The Weather Underground” suggests this confluence of weather may be more than chance: ”… [I]t is highly improbable that the remarkable extreme weather events of 2010 and 2011 could have all happened in such a short period of time without some powerful climate-altering force at work. The best science we have right now maintains that human-caused emissions of heat-trapping gases like CO2 are the most likely cause of such a climate-altering force.”
As the National Academy of Sciences has noted, the effect of growing carbon pollution from human activity is ramping up the risk of hotter summers and both more devastating droughts and heavy rain events, while significantly increasing the area burned by wildfires in the American West. It is also accelerating the melting of mountain glaciers and the Greenland ice sheet, contributing to rising seas.
NOAA’s peer-reviewed 2010 State of the Climate report observes that in 2010, Greenland glaciers lost more mass than in any year on record. Increasingly, scientists expect that sea levels will rise by as much as three to five feet in this century, threatening the Miami-Dade metro area and many other coastal areas.
And there is also good evidence that hurricanes can be expected to intensify as the climate warms.
But the climate system is complex, and further research is needed to tease out how recurrent climate patterns, such as El Niño/La Niña and the North Atlantic Oscillation, interact with globally warming temperatures. Further study about whether hotter temperatures and other changing climate patterns are related to the formation of tornadoes is also warranted to determine whether or not there is a link to this particular type of weather event.
This ongoing need for scientific research, by the way, is precisely why Congress should be encouraging, not blocking, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) effort to open a Climate Service. NOAA’s proposal, under dispute in Congress, would create a structure capable of more efficiently providing authoritative, timely, and reliable information about climate variability and change to state and local governments, farmers and other businesses, and managers of transportation systems and water supplies. The scientific climate data collected by NOAA is already in demand. A national climate service will assist local business, government, and community leaders to plan for future anticipated changes in climate.
Faced with the growing evidence of the implications of climate change for our society, we can take two broad categories of action in response: First, we can reduce emissions. Many businesses and households have been doing this, because in many contexts, carbon pollution equates to wasted fuel and energy. Jurisdictions such as California are embarking on broad efforts to reduce emissions. And as recently reported, the Obama Administration is considering steps to reduce carbon pollution from vehicles while reducing oil consumption.
Preparing for the impacts of climate change is also essential. The New York Times reported recently on Chicago’s efforts to adapt to a future climate that will be more like that of Baton Rouge. And business leaders are assessing the risks posed by climate change, and preparing to adapt. For example, Entergy Corporation recently co-sponsored a report on quantifying and managing climate risks such as stronger hurricanes and higher seas – in the Gulf Coast.
A broader national policy that would take long-term steps to cut carbon pollution by putting a price on it is still needed. But while we are waiting for our national leaders to refocus their attention on this, many cities and business leaders are moving ahead to make prudent plans to reduce risk from climate impacts.
Eric Haxthausen is director of U.S. climate policy for The Nature Conservancy
Photo by Flickr user factoryseashell (Crews cleaning up six months after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.)
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