Connecting the dots

Gee, I wonder why no one wants to talk about this?

The National Weather Service has made it official. It’s dangerously hot out there. At least 22 deaths have already been attributed to the heat wave, the New York Times reportedtoday. More are expected as much of the densely populated East Coast faces temperatures close to 100 degrees and a heat index over 105, the threshold for issuing an “excessive heat warming.” Especially dangerous is the fact that nighttime temperatures are staying very high—above 80 degrees in many areas—meaning vulnerable people (particularly the elderly) are unable to cool down and get relief from the stress of the daytime heat, as NRDC discussed last summer.

What the New York Times failed to do is connect the dots between this extreme heat wave and global warming. The story reported that Bismarck North Dakota reached a high of 95, but didn’t even ask the question of whether this excessive heat could somehow be related to excessive heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere. Would it have been that difficult or inappropriate to mention the fact that the concentration of heat-trapping carbon dioxide has increased by one-third primarily due to burning coal, oil, and natural gas?

Scientists are always cautious about attributing any specific extreme event to pollution-driven climate change, but new research is beginning to tease out how global warming contributes to extreme weather. We are not just loading the dice, we are upping the ante, or as Steve Sherwood puts it in an excellent three-part series published by Scientific American, “it is more like painting an extra spot on each face of one of the dice, so that it goes from 2 to 7 instead of 1 to 6. This increases the odds of rolling 11 or 12, but also makes it possible to roll 13.” In the same series, Deke Arndt of NOAA explains the link between climate and extreme weather this way: “Weather throws the punches, but climate trains the boxer.”

Extreme weather turns climate change from an abstract concept about remote events, such as melting ice and drowning polar bears, to a concrete, often calamitous, experience for many Americans. Unfortunately, despite the vast amount of air time and pixels devoted to covering heat waves, floods, storms, and wildfires in recent months, there has been very little discussion of the increasingly clear links to climate change. No wonder only about half of Americans understand that global warming is making heat waves, floods, droughts, and wildfires worse, according to the latest Six America’s survey.