It’s been a tumultuous summer, weather wise, in much of the world. Record high temperatures, raging forest fires, diminished rainfall in some places, major flooding in others. You would either have to be hermetically sealed in a cave deep underground or a Republican not to notice something weird is going on with the world’s weather. Michael Mann, the climate scientist who helped create the now famous “hockey stick” graph in 1999 — the graph that Al Gore featured in his movie An Inconvenient Truth — tells The Guardian that climate change is a contributing factor in such extreme weather events.
“This is the face of climate change. We literally would not have seen these extremes in the absence of climate change,” he says, “The impacts of climate change are no longer subtle. We are seeing them play out in real time and what is happening this summer is a perfect example of that. We are seeing our predictions come true. As a scientist that is reassuring, but as a citizen of planet Earth, it is very distressing to see that as it means we have not taken the necessary action.”
Climate scientists at the World Weather Attribution consortium have conducted research this month on the extreme heat events taking place in Europe and other locations. By comparing the data to computer models of the Earth’s climate in the absence of increased carbon dioxide levels, their study finds the extreme weather is made twice as likely by climate change.
“The logic that climate change will do this is inescapable. The world is becoming warmer, and so heatwaves like this are becoming more common,” Friederike Otto of the University of Oxford tells The Guardian. “What was once regarded as unusually warm weather will become commonplace, and in some cases, it already has. So this is something that society can and should prepare for. But equally there is no doubt that we can and should constrain the increasing likelihood of all kinds of extreme weather events by restricting greenhouse gas emissions as sharply as possible.”
Geert Jan van Oldenborgh of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, adds, “We found that for the weather station in the far north, in the Arctic Circle, the current heatwave is just extraordinary — unprecedented in the historical record. We can can see the fingerprints of climate change on local extremes. It is amazing now that it is something you can really see at a local level.”
Asked if climate change “causes” specific events, Mann sad that was the wrong question. “The relevant question is: ‘Is climate change impacting these events and making them more extreme?’, and we can say with great confidence that it is. It is not going off a cliff, it is like walking out into a minefield,” he says. “So the argument it is too late to do something would be like saying: ‘I’m just going to keep walking’. That would be absurd — you reverse course and get off that minefield as quick as you can. It is really a question of how bad it is going to get.”
Mann is persistent but less strident than some other climate scientists. He even teamed up with cartoonist Tom Toles to write a book about climate change entitled The Madhouse Effect. Nevertheless, he has been pilloried by the professional climate deniers funded by the oil industry and the Koch Brothers. People follow him wherever he goes, hoping to catch him in an unguarded moment accepting payoffs from Al Goreski in a dark alley or molesting dogs — something, anything to tarnish his reputation. They’ve been at it for 2 decades now and haven’t found any dirt on Mann yet, but they keep hoping to catch him doing something illegal, immoral, or fattening.
Mann is doing his best to develop the scientific evidence the world needs to take effective action against unchecked carbon emissions and climate change brought on by human activity. But is anyone listening? Based on the observable evidence, few national leaders in the US even give climate change so much as a passing thought from one year to the next. Other nations talk a good game but come up short when it comes to taking action. Only China seems to be serious about curbing its appetite for high carbon energy. The world has a window of opportunity to step back from the precipice but it is closing rapidly.