Leading article: Where extreme weather and climate change intersect

Saturday 02 July 2011 00:00
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There are several inconvenient truths relating to the science and politics of climate change.

But perhaps the most inconvenient of all is that so many people remain to be convinced that the climate really is changing.

For the past two winters on the run, for instance, Britain has experienced weeks of freezing temperatures and heavy snowfalls. This is not what we should expect in a world made warmer by the emission of billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. And every cold snap, wet summer and cloud-filled sky inevitably brings a popular backlash against scientists who warn against letting the climate slip into dangerously instability.

Such a reaction, though, is wrong. And it is wrong because of another inconvenient truth: weather and climate are not the same thing. Weather is what we experience on a daily basis, whereas climate is what is expected over months, years and even centuries. We need to take the long view when it comes to the climate and not be hoodwinked by short perturbations in the weather. But this rubs up against another problematic truth, which is that the human mind tends to operate on a timescale that responds better to day-to-day fluctuations of the weather than to longer-term changes of the climate.

We notice changes to the weather because they are obvious every time we go outside. But we do not have such an instinctive feel for the climate. Yet, ultimately, it is the climate that will dictate what sort of weather we are likely to get. Which is why it is important that scientists will now be looking at the short-duration changes to the weather – extreme events such as storms, floods and droughts – to try to establish whether they are being exacerbated by global warming. As we reported yesterday, the idea is to assess how far any particular phenomenon has a "signal" of climate change.

Climate scientists at the Met Office and elsewhere in the world realise that it is increasingly untenable for them not to assess the risk that an individual extreme event will be made worse by global warming. And this more proactive approach is right, because more extreme weather is one of the changes predicted by the climate models of a warmer world. Extreme weather is bound to affect the lives of millions of people, as it has done with such tragic consequences over the past 12 months.

The extraordinary tornado season in the United States this year, the record-breaking April temperatures in Britain, last summer's deadly heatwave in Russia and the devastating floods in Pakistan and Australia last year are the kind of extreme events that the scientists intend to study as part of this new approach of "climate attribution". But this is not an attempt, as some sceptics may suggest, to pin the blame for every extreme weather event on global warming. The project rather aims to assess – with every rational tool we possess – the probability of such an event taking place or being made worse by steadily rising global temperatures.

And this brings us to an incontrovertible truth about global warming. In a warmer world we can expect more violent downpours because warmer air holds more moisture. Storms and flooding may be how many people first feel the physical impact of climate change.

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