Keep the climate crisis on the front burner

Keep the climate crisis on the front burner
© Getty images

Surviving the news cycle lately has been like navigating multiple whiplash attacks. A mere three weeks ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest grim assessment of the state of Earth’s climate, delivering a message far more dire than the previous five IPCC reports since 1990. A flurry of articles, interviews, tweets and interpretations ensued, dominating the headlines for a day or two —then poof! There was nary a peep about this global, ongoing, pervasive, escalating crisis. Headlines pivoted to other news stories, such as COVID-19 on the rampage, the collapse of Afghanistan, raging wildfires and looming hurricanes. These are indeed weighty stories, but arguably they pale in comparison to the scale of the climate crisis.

As the IPCC report makes abundantly clear, the climate crisis has arrived. It’s affecting all of us to varying degrees, and those least responsible for its causes and impacts are suffering the most. In recent weeks, its ugly head has reared as a series of extreme events: devastating storms, record-breaking heatwaves, a mass die-off of shellfish, expansive severe drought, first-ever rain at Greenland’s summit and unearthly firenadoes. In the latest of Mother Nature’s tantrums, Hurricane Ida was a poster child for the various ways tropical storms are boosted by a warmer world. These include more frequent rapid intensification, higher storm surges, heavier rainfall and slower movement. Obviously extreme events have always occurred, but climate change is undoubtedly making them more frequent, more intense, more disruptive and more deadly.

The report highlights that not only are these events delivering more severe punishments, they’re also acting in concert — so-called compound events. Drought is a common precursor of heatwaves, for example, and both of these conditions beget wildfires. Marine heatwaves not only stress ocean creatures, they also fuel additional evaporation that leads to extra moist airmasses, which then can feed more powerful storms that produce flooding rains.

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We also observe that extreme weather events do not occur in isolation. It’s no coincidence that the long-duration drought in the western U.S. has been accompanied by record-breaking rains in eastern states. The configuration of the weather-creating jet stream — a river of wind encircling both northern and southern hemispheres — is responsible for this yin and yang of weather extremes. During recent years, a northward bulge in the jet stream has predominated along the west coast, which steers storms into Alaska and British Columbia leaving western states high and dry. Downstream (east) of this bulge has been a stubborn southward dip that transports tropical moisture northward and wrings it out over eastern states. Both droughts and heavy precipitation events have become more frequent and more intense, likely due to human-caused climate change, according to the new IPCC assessment.

Disappointingly, the report does not discuss these connected events and corresponding climate-related changes in the jet stream. While the topic is still controversial, substantial progress has been made in understanding the complex interactions favoring the wavy jet-stream patterns that are responsible for many extreme weather events.

The process to create IPCC reports is arduous, protracted and surely exasperating at times. I applaud and thank the many dozens of scientists who contribute endless hours without compensation to this selfless but influential effort on behalf of us all. The reports cannot be expected to include every aspect of climate change, but in my view, this report missed an opportunity to emphasize the truly remarkable historical context of today’s climate: Thanks to decades of burning fossil fuels and clearing forested lands, the atmosphere now contains more carbon dioxide than at any time in the past 3 million years.

The last time the earth was as warm as it is today, sea levels were 20 to 30 feet higher, forests extended northward to the Arctic coastline, and the Arctic was 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer with no summer sea ice.

We have added greenhouse gases to the atmosphere so rapidly that the oceans and plants have not had time to respond, but we’re clearly on a trajectory toward conditions like 125,000 years ago if emissions are not curtailed drastically and rapidly. In the near term, warming and extreme weather events will continue to worsen no matter what we do, but after about 2050, our actions today will determine how much worse they will get. The time to act was 30 years ago when scientists first warned us this was coming — starting now is the next best time. 

Jennifer Francis, Ph.D., is a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts. Her research focuses on connections between climate change, particularly in the Arctic, as well as extreme weather events in North America and Eurasia. Follow her on Twitter: @JFrancisClimate