Is Global Warming Causing Wild Weather?

I recently responded to a question on the National Journal blog, “Does climate change cause extreme weather like the heat waves much of the country has been enduring for the past few weeks?”

You can read more on the original blog post and other responses here.

Here is my response:

Yes, and there is plenty we can do about it.

Natural variability can’t explain what’s happening with the weather. According to NOAA, more than 15,000 U.S. heat records were broken in March alone, and hundreds more have fallen since then. In decades past, the odds of record heat were roughly equal to the odds of record cold. But in the first decade of this century, according to the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), the United States endured twice as many heat records as cold records. A sustained long-term increase in record-breaking warm weather is not a fluke, it’s climate change.

The consequences are here and now. Last year the United States saw an unprecedented 14 weather-related disasters costing more than $1 billion each. So far, this year is looking no better, with continuing record-breaking heatwaves, historic wildfires in North Dakota, Colorado, and New Mexico, and severe flooding in Minnesota and Florida. And the National Climatic Data Center reported last week that drought has spread to more than half of the country over the past few months.

The rising risk of extreme heat, drought, wildfires, and heavy precipitation are well documented. Given long-standing predictions that climate change would increase the frequency and intensity of these events, the mounting evidence that this is in fact happening, and the rising costs we are incurring as a result, there is only one sensible thing to do: Take prudent action to reduce the risk.

Americans are a sensible bunch, and they have begun to notice what’s happening. In recent polling released by Yale and George Mason University researchers, 82 percent of Americans said they have personally experienced an extreme weather event in the past year, and more than a third said there were personally harmed by one. Most striking, large majorities believe that global warming made some of those events worse, including the last summer’s enormous heat wave, the warm winter, the Texas drought, the Mississippi River flooding, and even the “Snowpocalypse” blizzards and intense cold snaps of recent years.

There is plenty of science to back up this growing public perception. Independently, three peer-reviewed studies published recently by scientists at NOAA, Rutgers University, and Georgia Tech found that weather patterns are becoming more variable and extreme – and some are lasting longer – because of climate change. These studies show that shrinking sea ice in the rapidly warming Arctic  is driving erratic movements of the jet stream, which has led to alternating periods of steamy and arctic conditions in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Central Asia. The authors say this phenomenon could be responsible for some of the most notable events in recent memory.

Now that we have a handle on what’s actually happening to the weather, it’s time – past time, actually – to do something about it. That something is risk management. Business leaders and policymakers manage risks every day. Individuals do it too: We buy fire insurance to protect our homes, carry an umbrella when there’s a chance of rain, and securely strap small children into specially designed car seats to protect them in case of a crash that probably won’t happen, but just isn’t worth taking a chance on. So risk management is nothing new. What’s new is the rising baseline of weather risk, which we have yet to incorporate into our risk management strategies. That is what we must do now. Managing the risk of climate change entails two strategies: limiting the ultimate amount of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and reducing our exposure by adapting to the climate changes that are already unavoidable.

Although it has punted so far on the first strategy – reducing greenhouse gas emissions Congress took an important step on adaptation two weeks ago when it reauthorized FEMA’s National Flood Insurance program. That program is strapped with nearly $20 billion of debt in part because its premiums are based on flood risk levels that prevailed when it was created several decades ago. Congress has now instructed FEMA to account for rising flood risk by using the “best available science regarding future changes in sea levels, precipitation and the intensity of hurricanes” to update its flood zone maps. In many cases, these actions will cause insurance premiums to rise, but that’s what’s needed for the program to have enough money to make the necessary payouts when disaster strikes. Otherwise, taxpayers will eventually be left holding the bag.

It’s a good step, especially in light of our fiscal realities, but a small one, given the enormity of the climate challenge. The weather is telling us something. We need to listen – and act.

Eileen Claussen is president of C2ES