Wildfires, floods and extreme heat: It is time to heed warnings from climate scientists

Wildfires, floods and extreme heat: It is time to heed warnings from climate scientists
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Rampant wildfires, devastating floods, withering droughts, soaring temperatures — we are now living in a future we climate scientists warned of a half century ago. In fact, as far back as the early 1980’s, none other than oil giant ExxonMobil used the term “catastrophic” to describe the impacts of the planetary warming that would result from continued reliance on their product, fossil fuels.

Extreme weather events constitute the most dramatic exemplars when it comes to the damage that climate change is now inflicting on us and our planet. The Pacific Northwest, known for its lush forests and pleasantly cool climate, was one of the hottest locales on the planet last month as it fell under the influence of an unprecedented “heat dome” that had human-caused climate change written all over it. The event took place during the hottest June ever recorded in North America. Meanwhile, July saw the hottest temperature every reliably recorded on the planet in Death Valley California

Thanks to unprecedented, extreme hot and dry conditions, wildfires are now raging across the western United States. The Bootleg Fire in Oregon alone has burned more than 500 square miles and is so extreme that it’s creating its own weather. In total, over 1 million acres are currently on fire in the United States. This year’s wildfire season may end up breaking last year’s record of over 10 million acres scorched. 

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Meanwhile, northeastern cities like New York have felt more like Florida this summer, replete with tropical downpours. Afternoon thunderstorms recently turned subway stations into underground rivers and streets into lakes.

Our extreme weather here in North America has hardly been isolated. While there was much media focus on the historic, deadly floods across Europe last week, similar catastrophes were playing out across Asia as well. Over two dozen people perished in Mumbai after nearly a foot of rain fell in just 24 hours. And tens of millions of people were impacted by devastating flooding in central China that caused 25 deaths and delivered a years’ worth of rainfall in just three days

That’s just the flooding in Eurasia. There’s also the fire. More than 200 fires are burning in Siberia, scorching nearly 6,000 square miles, an area larger than the state of Connecticut. While it might seem like a contradiction that climate change is leading to more intense both fires and floods, it’s not. Though warming dries out soils and worsens drought, warmer air holds more moisture, so when it does rain, there’s more of it. As a result, climate change is causing greater extremes at both ends of the spectrum.

Seemingly every summer now we see the same pattern play out, where devastating weather extremes spread out like a mosaic across the Northern Hemisphere. Scientific evidence continues to pile up that climate change, beyond the exacerbating effects described above, is favoring these persistent hemisphere-wide arrays of extreme weather by making the summer jet stream both wavier and slower, so that high and low-pressure centers to grow in magnitude and become stagnant. As a result, some regions (like the western U.S. right now) experience extreme heat, drought and wildfire while other regions (like the eastern U.S. right now) experience extreme rainfall.

Make no mistake. Dangerous climate change isn’t two decades away — or even a decade away. It’s here, for residents of Oregon, California, New York, Mumbai, central China, Siberia or any number of locations around the world that have been subject to searing heat, drenching floods, parching droughts, infernal wildfires, and devastating superstorms. 

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Sadly, in the face of overwhelming evidence, there are still those who advocate inaction. I refer to them as inactivists. They include fossil fuel companies (and their advocates) who benefit from a continuation of the status quo, while the rest of us pay the price in the form of climate change-wrought havoc. They include those who (falsely) believe and parrot industry propaganda, including the false claim that efforts to lower our carbon emissions will hurt our economy. The fact is that inaction will cost far more — indeed, a clean energy transition will provide jobs and grow the economy.

Finally, there are those who claim it’s too late to make a difference — it’s not. Doomism potentially leads us down the same path of inaction and disengagement as outright denial. 

The science is clear. The impacts and costs are clear. The need to transition off fossil fuels is clear (at least, to those who don’t stand to profit from pollution). As individuals and as a society, we must hold our leaders accountable, putting policies in place to decarbonize our economy as rapidly as possible. 

Climate action must therefore remain at the center of current infrastructure spending proposals. While there are many viable approaches to accelerating the renewable energy transition (and in my view, carbon pricing is one approach that should remain on the table in ongoing policy discussions), one of the most discussed options today involves what’s known as a clean energy standard, where utility companies are required to purchase an increasing fraction of electricity from clean sources.  

Current proposals on the table center on a clean energy standard with a goal of 80 percent carbon-free energy by 2030, and 100 percent by 2035. While some argue that nuclear energy or carbon capture could play a role here, I’m skeptical that they should, given that safe options — i.e. renewable energy along with electrification and storage — can get us where we need to go. We must also invest in infrastructure that protects communities from the climate damage, including destructive extreme weather events, that we’re already dealing with. The details can and should be debated, in good faith, by our politicians. But the goal must remain a safe, effective and just transition away from fossil fuels toward a clean and sustainable future. 

For decades, we climate scientists warned about what would happen if we failed to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, only to be all but ignored. And we are now reaping what we’ve sown in the form of the onslaught of unprecedented extreme weather disasters we’ve seen play out this summer. Maybe it’s finally time for those in power to listen to what we are saying.

Michael E. Mann is distinguished professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. He is author of the recently released book, “The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back our Planet.” Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelEMann

This piece has been updated.