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.
Like it or not, climate change is now part of the “culture wars.” Like abortion, gun control, and health care, climate change divides conversations along political battle lines of left versus right. But if you listen closely to what is being said, you will find that people are talking past each other, engaged in a debate that has little to do with an evaluation of climate science. Instead, it is a clash about values, beliefs, and worldviews. Opinions are based largely on ideological filters that people use to understand complex issues, influenced strongly by the cultural groups of which they are a part and the opinions of thought-leaders and pundits whom they trust. The arguments are constructed around the frames by which people view the science, not the science itself.
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.”
Over the weekend, the National Weather Service issued an excessive heat warning across a huge swath of the country, putting 132 million people under a heat alert. This warning is only issued when a heat index of at least 105°F is expected for more than three hours per day on two consecutive days or when the heat index is expected to rise above 115°F for any length of time. Recently in Iowa, the heat index reached 131°F, a level normally found only along the Red Sea in the Middle East. Scientists warn that these types of events could become much more common in the future, thanks to climate change.
Press Release: Pew Center on Global Climate Change Chief Scientist Wins Prestigious Scientific Organization Award
July 19, 2011
Contact: Rebecca Matulka, 703-516-4146
Pew Center on Global Climate Change Chief Scientist Wins
Prestigious Scientific Organization Award
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Pew Center on Global Climate Change Senior Scientist, Dr. Jay Gulledge, is this year’s recipient of the Charles S. Falkenberg Award for his work communicating climate change science to decision-makers and the public. The award is presented jointly by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and the Earth Science Information Partnership (ESIP).
Since joining the Pew Center in 2005, Dr. Gulledge, who directs the Center’s science and impacts program, has worked to build public awareness of climate change science. In this role, he has communicated both an understanding of climate science and the need for urgent action to a diverse audience of non-scientists including policy-makers, the business community, and the media. Dr. Gulledge’s recent work uses a risk management framework to help explain that uncertainty over climate science is not a reason for inaction, rather it is a reason to act now to minimize both the risk that comes with climate change and the cost of mitigating it.
“He has the unique ability to translate scientific uncertainty into useful information for decision-makers and the public,” said Eileen Claussen, President of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. “Jay often says, ‘Uncertainty is information.’ For the public, that notion is nothing short of revolutionary.”
In December Dr. Gulledge will be honored for his achievements at the 2011 AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco. Established in 2002, the Falkenberg Award honors a scientist under age 45 who has contributed to the quality of life, economic opportunities, and stewardship of the planet through the use of Earth science information, and to the public awareness of the importance of understanding our planet.
Dr. Gulledge manages the Pew Center’s efforts to assess and communicate the latest scholarly information about the science and environmental impacts of climate change. In Pew Center reports, on the Climate Compass blog, and in numerous media interviews, Dr. Gulledge connects the dots between climate change and extreme weather, explains scientific developments in accessible terms, and delivers straight answers that increase public understanding of climate change.
Dr. Gulledge has also forged new ground in his work on the relationship between climate change and national security. As a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, he has co-authored influential reports, including The Age of Consequences: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Global Climate Change.
Dr. Gulledge is a Certified Senior Ecologist with two decades of experience teaching and conducting research in the biological and environmental sciences. He earned a PhD from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and was a Life Sciences Research Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University. He has held faculty posts at Tulane University and the University of Louisville.
“The ability to effectively communicate Earth science to a wide range of audiences is rare, and Jay ranks among the very few who possess that skill,” said Claussen. “His dedication to transparency and accuracy and his unflagging defense of the scientific process in the face of political shenanigans have earned him the respect of his peers.”
For more information about global climate change and the activities of the Pew Center, visit www.c2es.org.
The Pew Center on Global Climate Change was established in May 1998 as a non-profit, non-partisan, and independent organization dedicated to providing credible information, straight answers, and innovative solutions in the effort to address global climate change. The Pew Center is led by Eileen Claussen, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.
Scientific American published a three-part series authored by award-winning science journalist John Carey and commissioned by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change that reports on the link between extreme weather and climate change. Editorial control was held by the author and Scientific American.
The series details the impacts of extreme weather events, the science behind extreme weather and global warming, and the risks and how to respond to the increase in extreme weather. Through enterprising reporting, this series provides an in-depth and accessible account of extreme weather affecting communities across America, why it’s happening, and what can be done about it.
More violent and frequent storms, once merely a prediction of climate models, are now a matter of observation.
In North Dakota the waters kept rising. Swollen by more than a month of record rains in Saskatchewan, the Souris River topped its all time record high, set back in 1881. The floodwaters poured into Minot, North Dakota's fourth-largest city, and spread across thousands of acres of farms and forests. More than 12,000 people were forced to evacuate. Many lost their homes to the floodwaters.Read more.
How rising temperatures change weather and produce fiercer, more frequent storms.
Extreme floods, prolonged droughts, searing heat waves, massive rainstorms and the like don't just seem like they've become the new normal in the last few years—they have become more common, according to data collected by reinsurance company Munich Re. But has this increase resulted from human-caused climate change or just from natural climatic variations? After all, recorded floods and droughts go back to the earliest days of mankind, before coal, oil and natural gas made the modern industrial world possible. Read more.
Adapting to extreme weather calls for a combination of restoring wetland and building drains and sewers that can handle the water. But leaders and the public are slow to catch on.
Extreme weather events have become both more common and more intense. And increasingly, scientists have been able to pin at least part of the blame on humankind's alteration of the climate. What's more, the growing success of this nascent science of climate attribution (finding the telltale fingerprints of climate change in extreme events) means that researchers have more confidence in their climate models—which predict that the future will be even more extreme. Read more.