November 21

Talking About The Weather Just Got More Interesting

[My first column for TIME Ideas.]

Experts confirm what Americans suspected: extreme storms, droughts and floods are made worse by climate change.

Scientific progress is—and must be—a painstaking journey. That’s why regular people may feel we know something in our bones before the experts are ready to make a pronouncement about it.

That’s how it was last Friday, when 220 scientists and disaster experts at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the first definitive reporton the links between global climate change and extreme weather events. Their basic warning — climate change is making the weather wilder and more dangerous, so get ready — simply confirmed what most Americans already sensed.
While the scientists were calibrating their degrees of confidence (90% to 100% probability that heat waves will get worse, 66% to 100% probability that heavy precipitation will get worse), most of us were watching extreme weather get right up in our grill. More than twice as many Major League Baseball games were played in 95-plus degree heat this season as last year—the Texas Rangers played 27 of them in 100-plus degree heat. In South Florida, storm surges swamped coastal cities. Epic floods on the Mississippi, historic drought and wildfire in Texas, the ravages of Hurricane Irene — all of it has brought home the human toll as well as the economic costs of climate change in a way that no scholarly report ever could. According to a November 2011 survey by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, a majority of Americans now believe global warming intensified these record-setting events.

The familiar caveat that no single weather event can be blamed directly on climate change is giving way to a new consensus: The weather system combines the impact of climate change with the effects of natural variability the way Barry Bonds used to combine the impact of steroids with his own natural talent. “Records are not just broken, they are smashed,” said Kevin Trenberth, distinguished senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in an interview with the New York Times. “The environment in which all storms form has changed from human activities… It is as clear a warning as we are going to get about prospects for the future.”
There is, of course, a vocal minority that disputes the connection between greenhouse gas emissions, rising global temperatures, and extreme weather. But research by ecoAmerica and Yale tells us there is a larger group that remains unsure about the issue: call it the uncertain center. The ecoAmerica study indicates that important segments of the uncertain center—people who work or play outdoors and live close to the land, people whose livelihood is tied to the security of their communities — are beginning to think in new ways because of the extreme weather. These people have been on the receiving end of some of the ten separate billion-dollar-plus disasters that have hit the U.S. so far this year. (The IPCC puts the global cost of weather- and climate-related disasters at up to $200 billion per year.) As a utility worker in southern Indiana told me last summer, “something is going on around here with the weather. We all know it.”

Climate trends don’t march in lockstep, of course, and it is possible that 2011’s wild weather could give way to a period of relative calm that might lead people to stop thinking about the issue for a while. But the long-term trend is what matters. The 1980s was the hottest decade on record until the 1990s came along; the ’90s handed its crown to the 2000s, and the current decade is off to an even hotter start. As the IPCC tells us, hotter, wilder and more destructive is very likely here to stay.

This is not a time for climate hawks to say I told you so. Nobody wants to hear that, even if a prominent (and climate skeptical) Berkeley physicist named Richard Muller recently validated the data underpinning climate science. The Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Study, funded in part by the (extremely climate skeptical) Charles G. Koch Foundation, reviewed “more than 1.6 billion measurements from more than 39,000 temperature stations around the world.” As Mueller wrote in a Wall Street JournalEurope op-ed, the climate scientists he’d set out to debunk “had truly been very careful in their work, despite their inability to convince some skeptics of that. … Global warming is real. Perhaps our results will help cool this portion of the climate debate.”

It’s a time for other voices to join a national conversation about security and resilience — no shouting, no name-calling, just an honest discussion that concedes we don’t have all the answers but suggests we do know more than enough to take action. People in the uncertain center need to hear from their peers — from firefighters and rescue teams and highway crews that have done heroic work coping with extreme weather events; from insurance agents paying out disaster claims, small businesses coping with power outages, civic leaders of all kinds — men and women who understand now, as never before, that the cost of climate inaction is getting too high to bear.

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