Is Global Warming to Blame for this Summer’s Extreme Heat and Drought?

It’s a great question. It’s simple, compelling, and it makes for good headlines. That’s why so many people are talking about it. But it’s the wrong question. Reposted with permission.


I’ve been corresponding with climate scientists, educators, and journalists lately about this summer’s extreme weather. Our discussions have convinced me that this is a great question for advancing scientific research, but it is a distraction for the rest of us.

It’s not that the question is irrelevant. We all want to know whether global warming is already becoming palpable in our hometowns. If so, then climate change is manifesting much sooner than expected, and that’s news. Recent history has made us extra sensitive too, with record-breaking storm damage, heavy snows, floods and, now, drought and the hottest July ever recorded across most of the Lower 48 states.

Is this climate change … already?


Photo courtesy of Vasofoto.com via creative commons license.

The question creates two significant problems, and the first is a familiar one. Climate is average weather and is measured in long-term trends, not today’s local events. As [NASA scientist] James Hansen’s team wrote in their recent paper, “The location and timing of weather extremes depends on many factors and to a large degree is a matter of chance.”[1] In other words, blaming any local event entirely on the underlying trends makes no sense.

Does that mean the answer is no? Well, not really because the underlying warming trend pushes the weather, making extreme heat even hotter and more likely, and making droughts drier and more likely as well. Climate Central recently attributed the following explanation to Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research: “global warming helps make droughts hotter, and therefore drier, than they would be without human influence.” Meanwhile, Hansen’s team concluded that the number and extremity of heat waves have been rising, and they attribute these increases to global warming.

The relationship between weather and climate is very complex. Herein lies the second problem: simple questions beg for simple answers. Unfortunately, complex and hotly debated answers to our beautifully simple question accidentally reinforce the popular myth that global warming science is still unsettled.

Parsing the human influence on extreme weather events is cutting edge research. The cutting edge offers good material for the news, of course, because the questions are always compelling. But it also promotes a view of climate science as an endless debate about unanswered questions. Given what is at stake, plus ongoing efforts by deniers to promote the myth of scientific uncertainty, this is hardly the most productive way to help people engage.

Fortunately, there is an equally exquisite alternative to this difficult question.

The summer of 2012 presents a “teachable moment” with a lesson about experiencing the future first hand. New, different weather is exactly what climate change looks like: more extreme heat, more droughts, more storms, more wildfires, more costly damage, and so on.

Sure, nature dishes out harsh weather on its own, but getting hung up on the degree to which this summer’s heat waves are natural or human-caused is a distraction. If we can experience America’s hottest July on record, coupled with widespread drought at a time when global warming has advanced less than 1°C, the relevant question is what summers will be like when we reach 3°C, 4°C or 6°C. Given that greenhouse gas emissions have been rising along the so-called “worst case scenario” path since 2000, that’s exactly where we are headed unless we make different choices very soon.

We are getting a taste of the future right now. That’s the lesson.

Climate change is an immediate concern to nearly every American community, not some abstract discussion about far-off consequences or a technical debate about leading edge research. We are already vulnerable to drought, heat, storms, wildfires, smog, and rising costs.

Do we know how to reduce our vulnerability? A 2009 National Research Council study said no: “Government agencies, private organizations, and individuals whose futures will be affected by climate change are unprepared, both conceptually and practically, for meeting the challenges and opportunities it presents.”

I suggest that it’s time to figure out what to do, and we should start by asking the right question. Given what we are experiencing in 2012, what will summers be like in the next ten, twenty, and fifty years?

Research shows that when people grapple with their vulnerability they suddenly begin asking how we can reduce global warming in the first place. That’s the right discussion for communicators, the news media, and the rest of us to encourage.

AUTHOR
Tom Bowman is a social entrepreneur and small business owner who has walked the talk on carbon emissions and earned the respect of climate change experts from many disciplines. Reprinted with permission of Climate Report with Tom Bowman.

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11 Responses to Is Global Warming to Blame for this Summer’s Extreme Heat and Drought?

  1. A “teachable moment” indeed. And the NRC is right: we’re unprepared… in large measure because climate change is by and large missing from education and treated as controversy in the press.

    While some know-it-alls resist being taught or “educated at”, many others are open to what can be done to minimize our impacts on the planet and reduce our vulnerability…. if they are well presented and compelling. Whether in classrooms or more informal learning settings, like mobile learning and games, we need to acknowledge the implications of climate change, let go of quick-fix, magical thinking to “solve” climate change, and build climate and energy literacy as a long-term investment in the future of the planet.

  2. Dan Rogers says:

    “Research shows that when people grapple with their vulnerability they suddenly begin asking how we can reduce global warming in the first place. That’s the right discussion for communicators, the news media, and the rest of us to encourage.”

    I disagree. It has become very obvious that we cannot reduce global warming at all. It has been going on now for ten or twelve thousand years and it will likely continue on until all the ice is gone from the north pole. We are pretty sure that that is the way previous glaciations have receded and ended.

    The “right discussion” for all of us is how we are going to deal with the global warming problems we can see coming to us. Where will much more fresh water be needed? Where will we get it? How will we move it? What will become of the Atlantic Conveyor as more and more fresh water flows into the Arctic Ocean? Can it be preserved, or will a new ice age descend on Europe as the Gulf Stream stops flowing?

    • Zack Green says:

      Judging from this comment, an interesting trend is developing amongst denialists. Since they can’t hide from the truth, apparently the new tact is to accept global warming as a fact, but deny it’s a man-made problem. It’s just a natural trend! Wrong! We should actually be heading back into a long term cooling off period as we head to the next ice age, but that natural cycle has been negated by the increased role of fossil fuel generated CO2 by Man. (See http://ossfoundation.us/projects/environment/global-warming/milankovitch-cycles)

      • Dan Rogers says:

        Zack, I hope you’re right about the trend toward common sense. I am what you call a “denialist,” but I have never denied that the planet is growing warmer. No sensible person I know denies that we are still coming out of an ice age and that the climate is probably going to keep getting warmer for quite a bit longer.

        • Brian Dodge says:

          If by “sensible person” you mean unscientific, you may be right – but sensible and knowledgeable climatologists who study Milankovitch forcing know that it is past the peak for the Holocene, and we should be slowly cooling.

          “According to the Milankovitch theory of global climatic change, maximum summer solar radiation at high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere occurred at 10,000 yr BP (refs 1, 2). In particular, it predicts summer solstice radiation greater by 9–10%. Preliminary climate simulation experiments with these increased values of radiation confirm that high-latitude land surfaces received maximal insolation at ~10,000 yr (refs 3, 4). Paradoxically, however, the large volume of fossil pollen and other evidence from North America indicates a maximum of Holocene warmth at 7,000–6,000 yr (ref. 5), and a recent review of the evidence from New England suggests that the warming began at 9,000 and ended at 5,000 yr…” From the scientific journal Nature, in 1983. Whoever told you that it’s getting warmer because we’re still coming out of an ice age was lying to you – and they probably also told you that without fossil fuels our economy will completely collapse(how’s that for alarmism?), and that (Bush) tax cuts for the wealthy will create (have created? – Not!) jobs.

          If you roll loaded dice, the sequence of rolls is still random(weather), but every single roll is affected by the fact the dice are loaded(climate change). Rolling loaded dice gives you random individual rolls – sometimes you get sevens, sometimes you get snake eyes, and you can’t predict which rolls will be losers or winners – but over the long haul, the losing rolls will predominate. We’ve loaded the weather dice with more CO2 and predictably more energy in the atmosphere; we are already getting more snake eyes in the form of droughts, floods, and killer heat waves.

          We’ve passed a major climatological tipping point in Arctic Ocean sea ice cover – just look at the graphs at http://tamino.wordpress.com/2012/09/01/arctic-sea-ice-turning-points/#comment-70052 – and the decline in ice will make extreme weather even more common. At this point, denialists have won the political battle, delaying action until nothing can be done to stop many bad things coming, and civilization has lost the moderate and beneficial climate necessary for it to continue.

          • Dan Rogers says:

            “Whoever told you that it’s getting warmer because we’re still coming out of an ice age was lying to you – and they probably also told you that without fossil fuels our economy will completely collapse(how’s that for alarmism?), and that (Bush) tax cuts for the wealthy will create (have created? – Not!) jobs.”

            I just love well-reasoned responses!

            First, no one lied to me about the climate getting warmer as the planet comes out of an ice age. That is what happens. Do you really think anyone would lie about that? It is just common sense.

            Second, our economy will not collapse “without fossil fuels.” Have you actually heard anyone say that? Our economy will surely suffer, however, if we Americans undertake a frantic, poorly-planned changeover from fossil fuels to nuclear power. If we make that eventual changeover in a reasonable manner we will be much better off.

            Third, what do the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy have to do with this question of global warming? You’re getting science and politics mixed up.

            GWB was just about the worst President we have ever had, governing almost exclusively for the benefit of the Saud dynasty and America’s wealthiest one percent. The silverspooners like Romney et al. almost always stuff tax-break money in their shirts to keep warm, taking that money out of circulation and creating the very harmful monetary shortage we Americans have been experiencing now for the last few years.

            The north polar ice cap will surely disappear before the climate begins to cool down and we head into the next ice age. The Milankovitch cycles — particularly the eccentricity cycle — are still not understood with absolute clarity, but to the extent that these cycles are predictors of future climate changes, a cool down is on the way but is not imminent.

            What is ahead does not spell the end of civilization. A “moderate and beneficial climate” is not going to disappear from the Earth as global warming continues apace. There will be changes, but we can predict what most of those changes will be and, if we use our heads, we can make intelligent preparations for them.

  3. Paul Quigg says:

    The relationship between weather and climate is not complex at all. It is very simple, climate is the global weather over a 20 to 30 year period. A hot dry summer in the US midwest in 2012 is a miniscule portion of the global weather for the year. Making a big deal of this summers warmth is standard practice for radical alarmists and contributes nothing to a rational discussion and just turns off the general public. We should be discussing whether humans are capable of realistically addressing a problem which will affect their great grand children, whether alternative energy can be developed in time to significantly lower the global temperature by 2100. The climate for the next thirty years is already in the books. CO2 concentrations will continue to rise and we can only hope to slow it’s growth curve and slowly begin to bend the curve downward. The global economic downturn has done more to lower GHG emissions then all of the worldwide efforts for the past ten years. Do we want to hope for a continuation of the economic stagnation?

    • Dan Rogers says:

      Mr. Quigg, if we undertake measures intended to reverse global warming we will surely fail, and our efforts and expenditures will surely detract from sensible efforts to prepare for further warming. Carbon dioxide is a minuscule (note spelling) gas in the atmosphere, and reducing its concentration from its present minuscule amount down to another minuscule amount will have no noticeable effect on climate.

      • Larry says:

        This goes against the vast majority of scientific evidence. Please show your work in reaching your conclusions. Thank you.

        And to preempt you asking for my work, here are just a few resources:
        http://www.skepticalscience.com
        http://www.realclimate.org
        http://www.climateprogress.org

        Or you can go straight to the journals, such as:
        Nature
        Nature Climate Change
        Geophysical Research Letters
        etc, etc, etc, etc

        As all of this work is peer reviewed, please show peer reviewed evidence that refutes the consesus.

        • Paul Quigg says:

          Larry, I assume you are referring to Rogers reply, I disagree with his comments but I feel the enormity of the problem and the limited technology and interest required to solve it are problematic. If you are referring to me, let me know and I will look at you references.

        • Dan Rogers says:

          I can show no “work” which I have done to support my conclusion that carbon dioxide is, in all probability, NOT the driving force behind climate change. I have, however, been repeatedly exposed to the “work” that supposedly shows the opposite, and it has failed to convince me.

          Larry, I am not lying about this. I really haven’t been convinced that the CO2 global warming story is true. You and others have been trying to convince me for years now, and I have not been convinced. I apologize for disappointing you all, but you can just go on about your business and write me off as a dumbkopf.

          In parting,let me explain once again that I believe your “scientific evidence” consists of: (1) the fact that CO2 is a greenhouse gas; (2) the fact that atmospheric CO2 and global temperatures go up and down pretty much in lockstep with one another; and (3) the climate is becoming warmer.

          Those three things do not lead me to conclude that the CO2 in the atmosphere is causing the rise in temperatures. It could be the other way around, or one or more other things could be causing both changes to occur.