Climate of Alarm
Is Global Warming Driving Extreme Weather Events Throughout the World?
They're everywhere you look. Extreme weather events.
What does it say about the world’s climate?
Actually ... no one’s totally sure.
In the summer of 2023, New York City looked like a scene out of Blade Runner.
Or like L.A. basically every day in the ‘70s.
At one point, New York had the worst air quality in the world.i The immediate cause? Drifting smoke from a series of out-of-control wildfires in Canada. But the ultimate cause? Well, that was pretty obvious.
[NEWS PERSONALITIES REFERENCING CLIMATE CHANGE]
At least it was pretty obvious … to the media. But to leading climate researchers? Not so much.
Consider this: There's probably no authority on this topic cited more often than the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But the IPCC doesn't even bother looking at wildfire trends for signs of global warming - in part because, as they themselves say, human activity does more to drive those fires than the climate does. ii
What the IPCC does look at, however, is the places where climate change could create weather that make fires more likely. And while there are a number of those places throughout the world … Canada isn’t one of them.iii So, why was the press so quick to say otherwise?
If you want to understand what’s going on here you might want to ask Steven Koonin, a physicist and NYU professor who served as undersecretary of science in the Obama Energy Department. In his recent book, Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters, Koonin makes the following case:
Yes, the planet is warming.
Yes, humans are influencing that warming.
But no, … that hasn’t actually led to a significant change in most kinds of extreme weather events.iv
So, why does the media always seem so confident that climate change is the culprit behind every natural disaster?
As Koonin notes, a lot of the confusion owes to the fact that there’s a big game of telephone going on here. Most of us, after all, don’t actually read the scientific studies ourselves. We get our information from the media. But where is the media getting its information?
Well, often from a press release put together by a communications staffer … which is in turn taken from an executive summary … of a thing called an assessment report … which is itself drawn from a bunch of different research papers.
See where this is going? In order for us to understand “what the science says,” the information usually has to pass through the hands of a lot of people who don’t necessarily understand the science — which, if you’ve ever tried to read one of these papers … you can kind of sympathize with.
All of which means that there’s a lot of room for error. And, as Koonin notes, that leads to a lot of overstatements of exactly how much we know.
For example, one claim we hear with regularity is that climate change is leading to more — and more dangerous — hurricanes.
But when Koonin dug into the government’s National Climate Assessment — the combined work of more than 300 researchers — he found that the underlying research actually claimed no confidence in there being any trend for hurricanes, much less one that could be attributed to human activity.v The apparent increase could just be natural fluctuations.
Now, you’re probably thinking that that should be easy enough to check. Let’s just look at our records of hurricane activity going all the way back to … 1966?
That’s right: High-quality, satellite-based records of hurricanes have only been around for about as long as Adam Sandler.vi And this is a problem we see in a lot of climate science: a lack of enough historical data to make reasonable judgments about long-term trends.
It’s a similar story with tornadoes. The numbers show that we’re seeing a lot more of them in recent years.vii But here’s where things get tricky.
Today, we measure tornadoes with highly sophisticated radar that can detect even the weakest ones from a distance of over 100 miles.viii In the days before the widespread use of radar? Well, y’know: We pointed, and screamed, and then eventually someone wrote down that it happened. Hopefully.
The result: Government data shows that the tornado numbers have gone up not because there’s a huge change, but because we’re capturing the weak storms that often weren’t recorded in the past. In fact, the number of terrifyingly strong tornadoes … has actually decreased significantly.ix
Now, you could look at all this evidence and say, “who cares?” What difference does it make if these disasters are the result of climate change or just regular old bad weather? And the answer is: kind of a big difference.
Because if the only thing we can do to deal with extreme weather is to stop human influences on the climate … Well, that’s a huge task that will take decades of work. And we’re helpless until it happens. But the reality is a lot more hopeful. There’s plenty we can do here and now.
We know, for instance, that the use of controlled burns — setting small, planned fires to reduce brush — can reduce the severity of wildfires by nearly 75 percent.x
We also know that, when it comes to tornadoes, real-time information is a life saver. In the 1990s, when Doppler radar went into use throughout the country, the number of injuries from tornadoes dropped by 40 percent.xi The number of fatalities dropped by 45 percent.xii
All of which suggests that a little perspective is in order. We can take climate change seriously without blaming it for every natural disaster. Through innovation and technology, we can mitigate the worst effects of severe weather right now. And someday, as our ability to navigate the environment only improves, we may even be able…
…to find Los Angeles again.
- “New York City Tops World’s Worst Air Pollution List From Canada Wildfire Smoke” (Emma Newburger) — CNBC
- Special Report: Climate Change and Land (Land–Climate Interactions) — Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
- "Climate Change Information for Regional Impact and for Risk Assessment" (Nigel Arnell, et al.) — Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
- Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters — Steven Koonin, pg. 97
- "Tropical Cyclones and Climate Change" (Thomas R. Knutson, et al.) — Nature Geoscience
- Weather Satellites — National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
- Annual 2019 Tornadoes Report — National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
- Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About the National Weather Service WSR-88D Radar — National Weather Service
- "Prescribed Fire and Fire Suppression Operations Influence Wildfire Severity Under Severe Weather in Lassen Volcanic National Park, California, USA" (Lucas B. Harris, et al.) — International Journal of Wildland Fire
- "WSR-88D Radar, Tornado Warnings, and Tornado Casualties" (Kevin M. Simmons and Daniel Sutter) — Weather and Forecasting
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“New York City Tops World’s Worst Air Pollution List From Canada Wildfire Smoke” (Emma Newburger)
- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
Special Report: Climate Change and Land (Land–Climate Interactions)
- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
"Climate Change Information for Regional Impact and for Risk Assessment" (Nigel Arnell, et al.)
- Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters
Book by Steven Koonin
- Nature Geoscience
"Tropical Cyclones and Climate Change" (Thomas R. Knutson, et al.)
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Annual 2019 Tornadoes Report
- National Weather Service
Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About the National Weather Service WSR-88D Radar
- International Journal of Wildland Fire
"Prescribed Fire and Fire Suppression Operations Influence Wildfire Severity Under Severe Weather in Lassen Volcanic National Park, California, USA" (Lucas B. Harris, et al.)
- Weather and Forecasting
"WSR-88D Radar, Tornado Warnings, and Tornado Casualties" (Kevin M. Simmons and Daniel Sutter)
Learn more with a sampling of expert analysis and opinion from a wide variety of perspectives.
- “Honestly? The Link Between Climate Change and Hurricanes Is Complicated” (The Atlantic)
- “The Perverse Incentives of Climate Change Research” (The Free Press)
- “What the Media Misses About Wildfires” (The Honest Broker)
- “Climate Change, Contrarianism, and Science” (Washington Post)
- “Climate Change Brings a Flood of Hyperbole” (Wall Street Journal)
- “Turning Down the Temperature on Extreme Claims About Extreme Weather” (The Breakthrough Institute)