We know that the relationship between climate change and weather is a statistical one, in that rising global temperatures will cause more extreme weather patterns to occur more frequently. But that causal arrow goes just one way, in that we cannot take any particular weather event, however extreme, and unequivocally blame it on climate change. This puts the scientifically minded at a disadvantage when arguing with climate change skeptics who have no compunction about taking isolated anomalous events (such as the recent cold snap in Texas) and using it to proclaim that global warming is not occurring or is a hoax. Most of us refrain from fighting anecdotes with anecdotes.
But this year has seen such a large number of heat waves and droughts and floods all over the globe that climate change is now being unequivocally blamed for them.
The scenes of desperation and devastation in Zhengzhou added to a portfolio of disasters this year that have raised the specter of irreversible climate change as never before and offered glimpses of what it means to live on a warming planet where human survival grows more fraught.
Extreme weather this summer has flattened rural communities in Germany with floodwaters, triggered deadly mudslides in India and sparked heat waves and fires that can be seen from space in the Western United States and Canada. Floods have also wrought damage in parts of New Zealand, Nigeria and Iran.
Scientists have been warning for years that rising temperatures will make dry conditions for wildfires more common in some parts of the world and, in other places, trap more moisture in the atmosphere, leading to heavier rainfall during storms.
More unprecedented heat waves also could be in store, like those experienced this month in the Pacific Northwest, where hundreds of people are believed to have died from the extreme temperatures, and Russia’s Siberia, where nearly 200 separate forest fires have choked the region in smoke that has since drifted to Alaska.
“All of this was predicted in climate science decades ago,” said John P. Holdren, a professor of environmental policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “We only had to wait for the actual emergence in the last 15 to 20 years. Everything we worried about is happening, and it’s all happening at the high end of projections, even faster than the previous most pessimistic estimates.”
I wonder how many more such extreme weather events we will have to endure before the skeptics realize that this is not something that we can ignore.