We’ve all seen the doomsday headlines: London experienced its highest-ever recorded temperatures this week. Last month, Yellowstone flooded in a way never seen before. And two of the four hottest recorded days in Salt Lake City history have occurred over the past two summers, including in recent weeks. Regardless of political beliefs around climate change, it’s obvious that changes are happening — and somewhat rapidly.
We’re also still seeing cold days that climate skeptics are using as attempts to disprove climate change — like when outgoing U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe famously brought a snowball to the Senate floor. And while climate activists blamed last year’s Texas cold snap on climate change, climate skeptics used the historic cold as an example of how climate change couldn’t be real.
How confusing. So that begs the question: With the science we currently have, what is climate change’s impact on these weather events? How much can we blame individual weather events on climate change?
I’ve spent the past few years traveling across the country and trying to find common ground on climate change, with the help of experts. While I don’t pretend to know all of the intricacies of climate science from those conversations, there are some simple and unanimous realities that apply directly to our recent extreme weather events.
In simple terms, here’s what the science says:
- A very small amount of warming via natural cycles was expected to happen during this period, regardless of human activity.
- The effects of human-induced pollution have very significantly accelerated any expected, natural warming.
Overall, this warmth has created the following observed impacts:
- Higher temperatures.
- Higher precipitation.
- Increased rainfall is becoming more common than increased snowfall with higher temperatures, as the freezing point is becoming more difficult to reach.
- Normal weather events becoming slightly more extreme.
How does this actually apply to recent extreme weather events?
First, whether it’s a skeptic using a cold weather event as an attempt to disprove climate change or an alarmist blaming an extreme weather event on climate change, individual weather events cannot disprove climate change or solely prove climate change. We must get out of the habit of ringing the alarm with every hurricane, heatwave or flood.
Instead, climate change has pushed normal weather events (that would have happened regardless) to be slightly warmer — and often worse — than they would have been.
For example, I spent time in the Arctic Circle last month, where they also experienced some of the highest temperatures in recorded history. Similar to all weather events, that specific heat wave would have happened without human-related climate change. The important point, however, is that it would’ve been a few degrees less hot without our impact. The same thought process can be applied to most extreme weather events we’re observing.
Instead of the 87-degree days the Arctic just experienced, they would have experienced something like 84 degrees naturally. And while that may seem like a small change, those three degrees make a huge impact, especially in a place like the Arctic. With 24-hour sunlight during the summer, a marginal increase of an already-hot day leads to even more glacier and ice melt, contributing to increased flooding, as well as other problems.
Yet, contrary to the narrative we hear, these changes rarely make a visible impact to the human eye. The significant problem, however, is the cumulative impact of these changes, especially with how they’ll continue increasing without our action.
This National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chart is a perfect example of these trends. It shows the average temperature in 2021 compared to the averages during the mid-late 20th-century. As shown, increased average temperatures between this time frame have risen somewhere between 0-2 degrees Celsius (roughly 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Nearly all other trends show similar increases.
In short, the daily events we’re observing aren’t doomsday scenarios themselves, but instead the overall trend of such events — and what the trend does to our planet. Here in the United States, we have the tools to begin taking commonsense steps without harming our economy, raising our energy prices or putting us at a geopolitical disadvantage. Visionary frameworks like The Climate Commitment give us a solid place to start. Instead of embracing the toxic and factless discourse of alarmism vs. denial, we need pragmatic leadership to spearhead such ideas.
Whether you’re a farmer, forester, software engineer or store clerk, these continued changes in annual temperatures will have a sizable impact on all of our lives. It’s time our leaders stop “kicking the carbon down the road” and begin to take smart, cross-partisan action.
Benji Backer is the president and founder of the American Conservation Coalition. Follow him on Twitter @BenjiBacker.