Saturday, March 12, 2016

What Weather Is the Fault of Climate Change? - Heidi Cullen’s NY Times OpEd

Facing the weather (Credit: Patrick Kyle) Click to Enlarge.
Like politics, weather can be a contentious subject, especially when you throw climate change into the mix.

One view holds that no single storm or drought can be linked to climate change.  The other argues that all such things are, in some sense, “caused” by climate change, because we have fundamentally altered the global climate and all the weather in it.

While true, this “all in” philosophy doesn’t adequately emphasize the fact that not all of the extreme weather we experience today has changed significantly.  Some of it is just, well, the weather.

But some of our weather has changed significantly, and now a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine has outlined a rigorous, defensible, science-based system of extreme weather attribution to determine which events are tied to climate change.

Like the surgeon general’s 1964 report connecting smoking to lung cancer, the report from the National Academies connects global warming to the increased risk and severity of certain classes of extreme weather, including some heat waves, floods and drought.

This is an important development.  Climate change can no longer be viewed as a distant threat that may disrupt the lives of our grandchildren, but one that may be singled out as a factor, possibly a critical factor, in the storm that flooded your house last week.  The science of extreme weather attribution brings climate change to our doorsteps.

Understanding how climate change is affecting extreme weather is critical for insurers, policy makers, engineers and emergency managers as they assess risk and figure out how to make communities more resilient.  This knowledge can help to steer decisions on where and how to build or rebuild after a storm or flood, or whether to build or rebuild at all.

And those are decisions we’re going to face with increasing frequency as the planet continues to warm.

Scientists are now able to assess, in some cases within days, whether and how much the risk of such an extreme weather event has changed compared to the past — that is, before heat-trapping greenhouse gases altered our climate.  This knowledge will help communities make decisions appropriate for today’s risks.  These can include storm surge risk maps that reflect sea-level rise, better water management to reduce the effects of longer and more intense droughts, and improved floodplain management in increasingly flood-prone areas.

Climate change brings with it many existential threats — rising seas, acidifying oceans, species extinction.  But the most immediate and costly threats result from the changing risks of extreme weather.  Our perception of these risks has been almost entirely based on the past.  That’s how insurance companies have assessed our premiums.  But if weather risks change, and events that used to have a 1-in-500 chance of happening in any given year now have a 1-in-50 chance, insurance premiums will rise or insurance itself might become unavailable.

Read more at What Weather Is the Fault of Climate Change? - Heidi Cullen’s NY Times OpEd

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