For the second year in a row, unprecedented numbers of extreme weather events have occurred across the globe. However, more of 2011’s impacts occurred in the United States. From the drought in Texas to the floods in the Midwest and Northeast, this past year underscored the huge economic costs associated with extreme weather. While specific weather events are not solely caused by climate change, the risks of droughts, floods, extreme precipitation events, and heat waves are already climbing as a result of climate change. This year reminded us of our vulnerability to those events.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a “special report” (that’s what they call topical reports they publish in between their better known comprehensive assessments) today that is worth a close look for anyone who wants to start getting ready for a future with weirder and often harsher weather.
About a year ago I published an opinion editorial taking the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to task for neglecting risk-based information to help decision makers cope with inevitable uncertainties about the future impacts of climate change:
Since uncertainty is endemic to the future, when the second IPCC assessment concluded in 1995 that ‘The balance of evidence suggests a discernable human influence on the global climate’, the IPCC should have reconvened around the risk implications of this probable human influence. Instead, it redoubled its effort to reduce physical science uncertainties [which will not be resolved before action is required].
This blog is co-written by Jay Gulledge
Recently, President Obama quipped about GOP presidential candidate and Texas governor Rick Perry: “You’ve got a governor whose state is on fire denying climate change.” While this type of election jousting risks further politicizing an issue that should be totally non-partisan, it raises a legitimate question: Is climate change increasing the risk of drought and wildfires in Texas?
With the Northeast still reeling from the impacts of Hurricane Irene, the possibility of even more flooding was almost too much to comprehend. But last week the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee stalled and sent plumes of precipitation toward the Northeast, creating a replay of the floods a few weeks earlier. This time the area along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania and New York was in the bulls-eye. Since the ground was still saturated from Irene, this new round of flooding was worse, surpassing the previous record event set in 1972 when Hurricane Agnes dropped a torrential downpour on the area.
This op-ed appeared in CQ Researcher.
By Jay Gulledge
The risk of extreme weather is rising because of climate change. In the United States, long-term trends show an increasing number of heat waves and heavy downpours and longer, more destructive droughts and wildfires. Climate models simulate these same trends when scientists examine the effects of increases in global warming’s main ingredient – greenhouse gases.
Risk is the best way to understand the link between climate change and extreme weather. Just as smoking and high cholesterol are risk factors for heart disease, natural cycles and global warming are risk factors for extreme weather. This year’s weather impacts have been particularly severe because multiple risk factors are aligned: A long, intense La Nina – a temporary cool period in the equatorial Pacific Ocean that is associated with extreme temperatures, droughts, and flooding in other parts of the world – is occurring at the same time we are experiencing the warmest decade in at least 130 years. The big difference between these risk factors is that natural cycles come and go, whereas global warming increases over time as atmospheric greenhouse gases grow, constantly adding more weather risk to the climate system.
Escalating weather impacts are cutting deeply into the economy. The world’s largest re-insurance company says the number of weather- and climate-related disasters worldwide more than doubled over the past 30 years. Economic losses attributable to weather variability run $485 billion annually. Several multi-billion-dollar events have occurred this year, including Texas’ worst single-year drought, the Mississippi floods, and Hurricane Irene, which is expected to rank among the ten costliest hurricanes in U.S. history. As the weather becomes more volatile, economic risk will continue to grow.
As recent weather events teach us more and more about our vulnerabilities, the taxpayer-funded National Flood Insurance Program is already $18 billion in debt. Because most of the damage from Hurricane Irene is not privately insured, this financially-strapped program is under pressure once again. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is running out of money to respond to disasters, even as Congress bickers over how to refill the coffers.
Flood insurance is the federal government’s second-largest fiscal liability after social security. Ignoring rising climate risk will only allow these hidden costs to suck up more taxpayer money. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to changes already under way bends down the risk curve, just as exercise and medical insurance lower health risks. If we don’t take these steps, our children and grandchildren will inherit a more dangerous and costlier climate.
Jay Gulledge is the Senior Scientist and Director of the Science and Impacts Program at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.
During the last weekend of August, the Eastern U.S. braced for a walloping. Hurricane Irene spiraled up the Atlantic coast, ripping trees out of the ground in North Carolina and drenching much of the rest of the coast. When I heard that Irene was making her way up toward my hometown of Ridgewood, NJ, I had flashbacks to Hurricane Floyd, a devastating storm in 1999 that brought us much destruction and devastation.
So how bad was Hurricane Irene? Some commentators seem to think Irene didn’t match up to the media, yet preliminary assessments suggest Irene will be one of the top 10 costliest hurricanes ever in the United States. New Yorkers are indeed fortunate that the worst case scenario did not play out in their fair city, but that doesn’t mean there were no worst case scenarios elsewhere.
The worst fears about wind intensity did not play out, but a different devastating outcome did occur: Historic inland flooding across a huge swath of the interior Northeast. From New Jersey to Vermont, as much as 12 inches of rain fell in a matter of hours, swelling creeks and streams to well beyond flood stage. Paterson, New Jersey, is still under several feet of water five days after the storm passed and many residents have not be able to return home. Thirteen towns in Vermont were cut off from the outside world, and relief workers were unable to reach one town for days. More than 250 Vermont roadways are damaged and 30 bridges were destroyed.
“Don’t wait, don’t delay, we all hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” President Obama’s statement on Hurricane Irene urges the public to take precautions before one of the most significant northeast hurricanes in recent history. Mandatory evacuations have been ordered for much of the Atlantic seaboard, including coastal areas of New York City. All lanes of one major highway in New Jersey are headed in one direction only – west. The safest course of action is always to get out of the way of an approaching storm – to minimize the risk of harm when you can.
Texas climatologists have recently stated that the ongoing dry spell is the worst one-year drought since Texas rainfall data started being recorded in 1895. The majority of the state has earned the highest rating of “exceptional” drought and the remaining areas are not far behind with “extreme” or “severe” ratings by the U.S. Drought Monitor. So far, Texas has only received 6.5 inches of the 16 inches that has normally accumulated by this time of year.
Cattle deaths have been mounting in the central U.S. as the recent heat wave has pushed heat indices above 120 degrees in a number of states. Faced with dry pastures, rapidly depleting hay supplies and drought stressed surface water sources, ranchers in Texas are engaging in a significant livestock sell-off, referred to in one press account as culling into “the heart of the herd.” The size of the U.S. herd is now at a record low as farmers liquidate, enticed by high beef prices and expensive feed. The situation is dire enough that the government has stepped in with low interest loans to ranchers and direct payments for farmers that lost animals due to the extreme weather. Under the Livestock Indemnity Program, cattle lost to extreme weather are reimbursed by the government at 75 percent of their value, a significant expenditure when cattle losses are counted in the thousands. Texans are already looking for ways to adapt to the drought and improve their climate resilience. Henderson County is hosting a training session on August 22 entitled “Managing the Effects of Drought for Beef Producers.”