Was That Huge Storm Caused by Climate Change?

“When a ball player doubles his home run output because of steroid use, we don’t have to prove that any single one of those home runs was caused by the steroids.” Dr. Michael Mann

During the last week, we’ve thought of little other than Typhoon Haiyan, the six million displaced people in the Philippines, and Yeb Sano, the Filipino delegate to the Warsaw climate talks whose fast has riveted the attention of people from all over the world. For us, the intensity of our focus has been augmented by our own decision to join the fast in solidarity with delegate Sano and with the millions suffering from the strongest cyclone ever to make landfall.  

The city of Tacloban after Haiyan

The city of Tacloban after Haiyan

But implicit in our reaction to this tragedy is the linkage between the horrible suffering from this record storm and the ever-thicker blanket of earth-warming gases that our species is pumping into the Earth’s atmosphere. In the face of this assumption, we’ve all heard scientists say that it’s almost impossible to link any single local weather event to global climate disruption. Aren’t we just ignoring the science, like climate deniers who pronounce the end of global warming with every winter blizzard?

Well, I don’t think we are, but I’ve had a difficult time figuring out how to frame the response.  Yesterday, however, I came across this short interview with leading climate scientist and Penn State professor Michael Mann. And he nailed it for non-scientists like me. The interviewer asked, in essence: In the wake of the largest hurricane ever to lay waste to the Earth’s surface, can we dare to say that this is the work of manmade climate change?

Here’s Dr. Mann’s response:

This is of course the question on everyone’s mind right now, in the wake of the extreme weather we have seen here in the U.S., and all around the world, over the past few years.

It’s really this simple: we predicted decades ago that we would see more frequent and intense heat waves, more widespread drought, more catastrophic flooding events, etc. And now that we are indeed seeing this come true, as we predicted would be the case if we continued to burn fossil fuels and elevate atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, the burden is no longer on those arguing for a connection, but on those arguing for the lack of a connection. The assumption now has to be that the fundamental changes in the atmosphere that we have caused are modifying every weather event, because every weather event takes place in an atmosphere that is now about 1.5-degrees Fahrenheit warmer, and contains about 4 percent more storm-generating moisture.

With hurricanes and typhoons, we know that warmer oceans and more atmospheric moisture leads to potentially stronger and more devastating storms. With tornadoes, we know that a warmer, moister atmosphere leads to a more unstable atmosphere, with greater potential for severe thunderstorms and squall lines, one of the key ingredients for tornadoes.

Now, in both of these cases, there are uncertainties that have to do with certain details about the behavior of the jet stream, etc. in a warmer world. But having witnessed record tropical storms like Superstorm Sandy,  Typhoon Haiyan, and the unprecedented 2005 Atlantic hurricane season over the past decade, there is little doubt in my mind that we are witnessing the “loading” of the random weather dice, with double sixes coming up a whole lot more often than they ought to.

Yes, there are uncertainties when we start talking about individual events, but that really isn’t the point. When a baseball player suddenly doubles the number of home runs he has been hitting through his career or season, and he is discovered to have been taking steroids that season, we don’t have to—nor could we ever hope to—prove that any one of those record season home runs was caused by the steroids. It is the wrong question. The right question is, were the steroids responsible for a good number of those home runs collectively? And the answer is yes.

Too often we let the “confusionists” in the climate change debate wrongly frame this connection so as to blur the connection between climate change and extreme weather. It’s time that we start calling the out the false framing. The answer is, yes—the record heat, drought, devastating wildfires, coastal flooding events, etc. that we are seeing is almost certainly a result of human-caused global warming and climate change. And it will get much worse if we don’t do something to curtail our ever-escalating burning of fossil fuels.

Here at Beloved Planet, we’ve been encouraged at the outpouring of support from Christians reflected on social media on behalf of the victims of Typhoon Haiyan. But I would offer this caution: Sincere sympathy — even sympathy demonstrated by generosity — may mean little in the end, unless it is accompanied by action to reduce Earth-warming emissions.

So, yes, get out your credit card and click here to give. But then, click here to petition your government to end the injustice of unlimited, “free” carbon pollution.

Michael Mann is a professor at Penn State University, a founding member of the popular science blog Realclimate. His latest book is titled The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines. He is active on Twitter @MichaelEMann.

9 thoughts on “Was That Huge Storm Caused by Climate Change?

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