Hot nights. Smokey air. Forest fires. Air conditioning. Overheated grumpy toddlers. Packed public beaches. These are the things that summers in the future have in store for us here in the Pacific Northwest. In the midst of oppressive air quality, forest fires in British Columbia, and heat–maybe some of the physical suffering that comes with climate change will feel more visceral. More real.
One of the things that I get into contact with when I have experienced extreme weather events–such as heat waves, flooding, or tropical storms–is the immense capacity that humans have to suffer. And how climate, and the day-to-day manifestation of that climate as weather, is irrevocably tied to the health and safety of people.
Likely in the Seattle weather and climate spaces (cough, cough, popular unnamed “weather” blog) we will see the ever-present argument around climate attribution–we can’t attribute this one weather event to climate change! What about natural variability! Liberal people ruin everything! (And, my favorite, poor people should be illegal!).
What is the point of attributing weather extremes to anthropogenic climate change? As an Earth scientist, one of my unbidden impressions in the field of attribution is good luck! It is hard to attribute weather variability in specific places to anthropogenic climate change–for the principle reason that weather and climate operate on such fundamentally different temporal and spatial scales. To make matters more interesting, scientists have only recently (like, in the last 50 years) been getting better at understanding all the “natural” noise in the climate-ocean system, which comes in the form, for example, of decadal to multi-decadal variability such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation. Put simply, the system is complex and our observations are limited.
The real piece around attribution that is often lost is this: it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter if we have the statistical tools and high-quality time series data to pick out the signal of anthropogenic change within the noise of local weather. Why? Because climate change is planetary science–not regional weather. Because climate change is the global alteration of the entire physical, chemical, and biological identity of this planet–and the bedrock of consensus science around climate change is not built around the attribution of weather extremes. It is built on, among other things, our understanding of the global carbon system, the changing geometric relationship between the earth and the sun, and the role of ocean circulation in modulating abrupt planetary warming and cooling.
Weather events, like heat waves and forest fires, demonstrate what we all have to lose. Any equivocation around this is to lose the forest of planetary science for the tree of weather attribution. We all suffer in the heat—but the weakest, poorest, and sickest of us suffer the most. This is why climate change is about justice and the care of others–not just about science and engineering.
One of the most important questions that we here in self-declared “climate-action” Seattle can ask ourselves is this: Whose suffering matters? Ours? Others? People living now? People in the future? Climate change will be paid out in the currency of human suffering and collective loss. We just have to get to a point where we all agree that the price is too high.
Stay cool today.