Franz Litz – When Climate Changes, So Does the Weather

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In November 1965, the U.S. Science Advisory Council warned President Lyndon Johnson that failure to stem the rapid rise of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere would trigger climatic changes with potentially dire consequences for humanity.   

Fifty-three years later, the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Irene in August provides what is the latest example of the type of “havoc” that 1965 Panel anticipated.  Extreme weather is now the rule, not the exception.

The Northeast has suffered billions of dollars of damage from Irene and subsequent storms.  Families were left homeless after their homes were washed away or rendered uninhabitable by flood waters.  Entire communities were stranded when bridges and roads were destroyed. 

According to the Associated Press 120 Vermont schools were delayed in opening and 5 were closed indefinitely.  Where schools did open, it soon became very clear that many families were not in a position to send their children—a clear sign of a community in distress.

Despite what the oil industry and some of the coal guys would have us believe, the basic science of climate change is well settled.  Global average temperatures are rising and the global scientific community has concluded with a very high degree of certainty that human beings are responsible for those increases.

We contribute to global warming whenever we burn gasoline to propel our cars, or oil or natural gas to heat our buildings, or use electricity generated using fossil fuels.  Human beings pump 74 million tons of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere each and every day worldwide.

74 million tons a day. Should we be surprised that this dumping would change our climate?

Climate is about averages and general trends, not about the specific weather we experience today or tomorrow or this week. That is why it is silly to suggest that snow in Washington, D.C. in February is evidence that climate change is not happening and equally silly to suggest that a hurricane is evidence that climate change is happening. 

But while scientists have been very reluctant to blame a specific weather event like Hurricane Irene on global warming, they have long expected climate change would lead to more frequent and extreme hurricanes.

More days of extreme heat. More frequent and intense storms. More periods of intense drought. More periods of intense precipitation.  Sound familiar?  All of these extremes have occurred in parts of the United States in this year alone.  In fact, according to FEMA major disaster declarations were issued for 41 of the 50 states this year.

The increased frequency of extreme weather events has led many to refer to a “new normal” for extreme weather.  What was a once-in-a-lifetime storm event is now more likely to happen repeatedly in one lifetime. The U.S. government’s own data show a doubling in the frequency of multi-billion dollar weather disasters since 1980.

The scientific magazine Nature reported this month that scientists are getting better at tying specific weather events to climate change. A study published this past February in Nature concluded that greenhouse gas emissions increased the risk of flooding by more than 90% in two-thirds of the weather events studied. 

Not long after every natural disaster it seems there is someone willing to step forward to say that the disaster is God’s way of punishing us for the error of our ways. We need not look to the supernatural, though, to point the finger for more intense and more frequent storms.

The finger of blame should be turned on ourselves.

Mark Twain famously said, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” 

Twain was of course joking, but as communities across the Northeast region rebuild after Tropical Storms Irene and Lee, we should pause to consider that our addiction to fossil fuels may be partly to blame for these storms.  We can and must break that addiction.

Franz Litz is the Executive Director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center and Professor of Law at Pace Law School.

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