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Does Climate Change Increase Likelihood of Extreme Weather? Yes.

J. Mijin Cha

Following up on our last post on the link between climate change and extreme weather, a new scientific study was released that found that manmade climate change increases the probability of extreme weather patterns. The study was a joint effort between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the U.S. and the Met Office in the U.K. that analyzed six different extreme weather events to see if they were impacted by climate change. Among their findings, global warming made the severe heat in Texas last year 20 times as likely as the 1960s. The devastating floods in Thailand, on the other hand, were more likely a result of rapid development and not global warming.

The study likens the relationship between global warming and extreme weather to the use of steroids in athletes. Say a baseball player starts taking steroids and, as a result, they hit 20 percent more home runs per season on average. While it cannot be said that an individual home run was the result of steroid use, the overall increase in home runs could be attributed to steroid use. As a result, all things being held equal, steroid use would increase the likelihood of a home run by 20 percent.

Likewise, while scientists are still working to establish the exact link between a specific extreme weather event and climate change, it can be said that global warming increases the likelihood of extreme weather events. Extreme heat in the 2008 La Nina year was 20 times more likely than any other La Nina year in the 1960s. One big difference between 2008 and 1060 is the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, mainly due to emissions from human activities.

The importance of this recent study is that it shows what we are doing is increasing the probability of extreme weather events. This also means that, on the flip side, we can decrease the probability of these events by decreasing the amount of greenhouse gases that we emit. This last point really needs to be hit home. Whether or not a definitive link is established between carbon emissions and extreme weather, acting to decrease carbon emissions is in our best interest.

Beyond staving off climate change, transitioning our economy into a low-carbon model provides opportunities for innovation and a much needed reboot to our current economic stagnation. It also transitions us off of our dependence on finite energy sources that will eventually run out--but not before releasing billions of tons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere.  If along the way, a new economic model helps decrease the probability of extreme weather events, that’s an added bonus.