Scientists and water managers now believe the US West megadrought will persist and even strengthen. This is bad news for water supply in the region. While drought is certainly naturally-occurring, there is evidence that climate change is having an effect on their frequency or severity. Which leads me to statements that always comes up in these discussions – “You know the climate changes naturally” or “There have always been droughts? It has always been baffling to me that someone would think a person with three degrees in atmospheric sciences would not know those things, but I digress. I thought it would be instructive to reflect on four things that climate scientists get told that they already know.
Climate changes naturally. Of course it does. The climate system is a complex mix of solar forcing, planetary orbital changes, greenhouse gases, land cover change, and other processes. At this point, a couple of reminders are appropriate. Grass grows naturally. Major League Baseball players hit home runs with natural ability. Muscles grow naturally. However, grass grows differently when the soil is fertilized. Steroids fundamentally changed homerun statistics in baseball. Many people take supplements to augment muscle growth while weight training. It is not an “or” proposition. It’s “and.” Of the aforementioned processes, greenhouse gases are the dominant mechanism on the radiative system (see graphic below). For many people, “Mr. Sun ”(those with kids will appreciate that) seems to be the obvious culprit, but it is not that simple. A deep dive into college radiative transfer classes or a book chapter about energy balance will provide enlightenment. Did anyone see what I did there?
We’ve always had hurricanes. Yep, we sure have – heat waves, drought, flooding, and wildfires too. However, a relatively new area of climate science called Attribution is becoming quite reliable at identifying the “DNA” of climate change in contemporary weather extremes. A 2021 study published in open review with the science journal Earth System Dynamics stated that the heatwave that affected the Pacific Northwest and Canada was well outside the realm historically observed temperatures in that region. They also make the point that a 1-in-1000 year event would have been 150 times rarer without human-induced climate change. Attribution studies are not perfect, but the science has evolved to make them increasingly useful.
There are still uncertainties with climate science? This one is also baffling. Scientists rarely speak in “absolutes” for this very reason. Scientists are very aware of uncertainties. However, some people seem to have the perception that “uncertainties” equate to “don’t know.” We use information with uncertainty every day. We have a chance of rain today? That information has uncertainty but enough useful data for me to make some decisions. Many people receive medical diagnoses or suggestions for their retirement portfolio. There is uncertainty in that information too.
The cost of doing something about climate change is high. Absolutely, it is. However, from my lens, the cost of doing nothing about it is far greater. The climate crises is a generational challenge rather than an episode or “2-year blip.” Our economy, infrastructure, health system, agricultural productivity, water supply, and national security are directly impacted by climate. Over the years, I have watched the narrative evolve. We used to hear things like “it’s a hoax” or “That one popular magazine said during the 1970s that it was going to be an Ice Age.” Then, the narrative evolved to its probably happening, but it isn’t as bad as they say. Now, climate delayism is full swing. In fact, several colleagues and I were recently invited to the White House to discuss delayism. Delayism involves framing arguments that downplay the need for immediate action or attack the best set of solutions on the table. On the contrary, we need immediate action and a ManhattanProject / Apollo scale commitment. Imagine those who may have said, “the cost of doing something about COVID-19 is too high.” With such narrow foresight, we would not have life-saving vaccines in a record timeframe.