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Scientists Report Human-Induced Climate Change Influences Extreme Weather Events. Now What?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Last week, a new analysis of climate change and extreme weather was released in the peer-reviewed Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. The study, entitled, “Explaining Extreme Events of 2012 from a Climate Perspective,” brought together 18 different research teams from around the world to consider 12 extreme weather events–such as heat waves, storms, and droughts–on five continents during 2012:

Approximately half the analyses found some evidence that anthropogenically caused climate change was a contributing factor to the extreme event examined, though the effects of natural fluctuations of weather and climate on the evolution of many of the extreme events played key roles as well.

The report demonstrates when and where human-induced climate change (translation: the burning of fossil fuels that creates heat-trapping gases) has contributed to specific extreme weather events. For example, the team found that the impacts from Hurricane Sandy (left) were exacerbated by sea level rise. They also concluded that the high temperatures here in the U.S. are now likely to occur more frequently. And that’s just the beginning… I encourage readers to explore the full results in detail.

It’s good to have this kind of new data in order to make a stronger case that we ought to do something. But that said, how many more analyses are required? How long will we spend valuable time, energy, and resources documenting climate change?

The science community already knows this is happening. We recognize that Earth is getting hotter in some places, wetter elsewhere, drier in dry regions, and stormier as well–in very vulnerable areas. Excess carbon is changing the atmosphere and oceans. Further, even if all emissions stopped today, we will continue to see the impacts of excess carbon in the environment for centuries.

The American public will continue to debate what causes climate change, but over two-thirds of us do acknowledge it’s taking place. So sure, scientists will continue to predict and model the results–one report at a time. But I sincerely hope we shift our primary focus to mitigation and adaptation, because the world is changing and right now, we are largely unprepared.

Sheril Kirshenbaum About the Author: Sheril Kirshenbaum is Director of The Energy Poll at The University of Texas at Austin where she works to enhance public understanding of energy issues and improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Follow on Twitter @Sheril_.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Sisko 12:09 pm 09/9/2013

    Those who feared that additional atmospheric CO2 would warm the planet quickly and would have many other disastrous secondary impacts are scrambling to find ways to convince the public that they is still some imminent threat to fear. It is certainly possible that a climate with more atmospheric CO2 will have some more severe weather events. That stated, there is most certainly NOT evidence of a widespread increase in severe weather that can be associated with higher levels of CO2.

    There are many scientists that are highly motivated to establish these types of links but in truth it really doesn’t matter. Here is what is most likely to happen.

    The current trend of flat to slightly cooling trends will continue for the next several years.

    Developing countries will continue to power the largest percentage of their new power plants by the use of fossil fuels.

    CO2 levels will continue to rise

    Time will pass

    In about 10 years another the long term climate trend will lead to greater warming and this trend will be increased by a higher atmospheric CO2 content. The arguments will begin in earnest once again.

    And the key to the issue- how developing countries will get electricity without subsidies and without releasing CO2 will still be a mystery. Rather amusing actually.

    Link to this
  2. 2. rkipling 12:27 pm 09/9/2013

    Ms. Kirshenbaum,

    There was another blog post on this same report on Sept. 6th.

    Let’s assume for sake of argument that you have won the war of ideas and that everyone agrees with you. What mitigation and adaptation steps do you personally favor? I’m asking this seriously without any sort of attitude. I don’t doubt your sincere concern for a moment. I’m ready for us to take action. The action just needs to be meaningful.

    When you answer, please evaluate the quantitative effect of each recommended mitigation and adaptation step. I’m not sure of your background, but there are many highly qualified people at UT who would happily help you with a mass balance. If you ask in a group of engineers, bring raffle tickets to aid in your selection of advisors.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Owl905 5:05 pm 09/9/2013

    Great. An article about a peer-reviewed piece of research adding the global warming fingerprint, and the pro-pollutionists come back with ‘there’s no evidence it does’ and ‘let’s pretend they’re right, so get scared at the cost of doing anything’. It puts the lame in brain.
    It’s happening. It has been happening all along. It will keep happening, and it will gouge the tax reserves for money to pay for the disasters, the reliefs, the insurance, and the repairs. This is the true cost-curve of the non-response to GHG-pollution that is now in its third decade.

    Link to this
  4. 4. rkipling 5:48 pm 09/9/2013


    That mischaracterizes my statement. Ms. Kirshenbaum is a published author and speaker on this subject. She holds a position at a respected university. I’m confident this issue has come up once or twice before. She may even be able to readily reference papers or recorded speeches? Why would you assume it’s a trick question?

    You are welcome to answer the same question, if you like. Please quantify the costs you speak of and offer quantified solutions along with the attendant costs and expected mediation effects. How is that unreasonable?

    Link to this
  5. 5. Sheril Kirshenbaum 6:57 pm 09/9/2013

    While too involved for much detail in a single comment, there are small and large things we can do as individuals, as communities, and as global citizens. Some involve improving energy efficiency at home. On a larger scale, supporting programs that educate and empower women in the developing world would change the way we use energy and improve global health, while decreasing the emissions that contribute to global change.

    I’ve written extensively on adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change in the past and will continue to.

    Link to this
  6. 6. rkipling 8:11 pm 09/9/2013

    Ms. Kirshenbaum,

    I sincerely wish you well in your new job. I was attempting to gauge your understanding of the scale of the problem. If you can address the question I raised you will have far greater credibility with engineering and technically trained audiences. The measures you speak of have no chance of making a measurable difference in the increasing concentration of atmospheric CO2.

    Please take my comment seriously. My intention is not to ridicule. Why would you possibly care what I think anyway? If you are familiar with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, your response sounds very like doubleplusgood duckspeak. For your own benefit, I recommend that you attempt to address the question I raised. Otherwise your advocacy will ring hollow to anyone who understands the scale of the issue.

    Annual CO2 emissions are at least 30,000,000,000 metric tons. This isn’t a hateful comment analogous to asking what a dog would do if it catches the bus. Estimate for yourself how many metric tons of CO2 can be annually mitigated per empowered woman in the developing world. Sadly it isn’t a rounding error in the above number. I don’t need an answer. And my intention is not to embarrass. Rather I wish to be helpful. If you prepare for these kinds of questions, it should benefit your career.

    There are meaningful solutions to CO2 emissions. It will be better if you learn about them yourself.

    I wish you well. Austin is a great place to live.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Sundance 8:31 pm 09/9/2013

    “Approximately half the analyses found some evidence that anthropogenically caused climate change was a contributing factor to the extreme event examined, though the effects of natural fluctuations of weather and climate on the evolution of many of the extreme events played key roles as well.” – AMS Abstract

    This means that 1/2 of the analyses found no evidence that anthropogenically caused climate change was a contributing factor to the extreme event examined. Being that the other 1/2 found only “some” level of human fingerprint, the question remains, was the human fingerprint significant in comparison to the natural contributions to these events?

    As for references to polls, the most important poll for me is the PEW poll which ranks climate change concern against other concerns that people have and a poll which ranks climate change dead last on a list of 21 things that people are concerned about in their lives. It’s one thing for people to say they believe in AGW and it is another thing for them to put their money where their mouth is. Are these believers willing to spend their money and pay thousands of dollars to mitigate CO2? I submit that the Australian PM election provides the answer to my question, and that that answer is no. Ultimately while their head is onboard with climate change concern, their wallets aren’t.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Carlyle 8:33 pm 09/10/2013

    The trouble is that there is little evidence to support the claims that CO2 is the culprit causing global warming yet there is no correlation between the continuing emissions & global temperatures.
    Despite the denials the evidence that temperatures have ceased increasing beyond the long term trend. Clean up pollution for sure. Change to cleaner energy, sure but do not condemn people & nations to poverty by pursuing solutions that merely give the proponents a warm fuzzy feeling. There are plenty of scientific peer reviewed reports like this.
    Abstract: The rise in global average temperature over the last century has halted since roughly the year 2000, despite the fact that the release of CO2 into the atmosphere is still increasing.

    Link to this
  9. 9. rkipling 11:40 pm 09/10/2013


    I hear what you are saying. I’m not worried about people being driven into poverty by uneconomical energy schemes to reduce CO2 emissions. Just as in Australia, people will not allow themselves to be impoverished. At some point the people will not pay the price.

    So, I say to those concerned with increasing CO2, follow Carlyle’s advice and advocate nuclear power. That will reduce CO2 emissions. It is the correct path for the world whether you are concerned with CO2 or not. Where other alternative energy is economical, use it. Everyone wins whatever their motivation.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Carlyle 7:30 am 09/11/2013

    It is not just the developed world that is being cheated of cheap energy by the lack of will & dollars to develop cheap modular nuclear plants.
    There are numerous suggestions including refrigerator sized units that could be encased in concrete & buried. one of a number of sites covering this:

    ‘Small Nuclear Power Reactors
    (Updated September 2013)
    •There is revival of interest in small and simpler units for generating electricity from nuclear power, and for process heat.
    •This interest in small and medium nuclear power reactors is driven both by a desire to reduce the impact of capital costs and to provide power away from large grid systems’.

    Link to this

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