Attribution Science Connects Extreme Weather to Climate Change

If you read my (Miro’s) Bright Ideas op-ed over the weekend then you saw that the tired argument of “yes the climate is changing, but we don’t know how much humans are contributing to it” has been around for at least 20 years. Luckily, that excuse for inaction is finally starting to wear thin as attribution science (which studies the links between climate and extreme weather) becomes more refined.

What’s Happening: When extreme weather events like hurricanes or wildfires occur, you’ll often see headlines discussing how climate change has created more extreme conditions to intensify the effects these natural disasters–like drought or warming oceans.

Scientists explain that instead of asking “did climate change cause this hurricane?” the better question is “what is the influence of climate change?” A region’s climate sets the stage for an extreme event. Scientists can then probe: Did climate change make some extreme event worse?

A Growing Concern: Some professions are beginning to worry about the legal liability of climate change and are therefore looking to attribution research for planning purposes. As Christopher Joyce told NPR,

“engineers and architects and builders are starting to get worried. They’re trying to understand how the science can help them plan. If sea levels are going to rise, and storms get stronger, you know, I need to know how to build to keep my structure up for decades in the new world and not get sued.”

In fact, the UN’s 2013 Warsaw mechanism aims to “enhance knowledge and understanding of comprehensive risk management approaches to address loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change.” 

Why This Matters: The importance of attribution science isn’t just for winning political arguments, it helps local officials and first responders save lives. When communities have a better understanding of how and why their local climate is changing they will be better able to prepare for extreme weather events.

Go Deeper: It’s for this reason that we wanted to highlight the first in a series of factsheets that UCSB political scientists Leah Stokes (along with researcher Emily Williams) have been working on to help journalists better understand the connection between extreme weather and climate change. It’s a really complicated issue but these factsheets are useful for anyone wanting to better understand how scientists “know” that climate change is drastically altering our planet. The first one is about climate change and wildfires.

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