Conservative columnist george will has no patience for those trying to connect the extreme heat of this summer to climate change. "How do we explain this heat? One word: summer," Will said on ABC's This Week on July 8--a day on which the mercury hit 102F in Washington. "What is so unusual about this?"
Reasonable people may disagree about Will's climatological bona fides, but what's been going on in the U.S. over the past month--and really, the past year--simply isn't normal. More than 2 million acres have been burned in massive wildfires in much of the West, more than 110 million people were living under extreme-heat advisories at the end of June, and more than two-thirds of the country is experiencing drought. Last month 3,215 daily-high-temperature records were set nationwide--and that's nothing compared with the 15,000 set in March. The 12 months ending in June were the warmest 12 continuous months on record in the U.S. "What we see now is what global warming really looks like," says Michael Oppenheimer, a climate expert and professor at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. "The heat, the fires, these kinds of environmental disasters."
This isn't to say that climate change is the sole cause of the extreme heat that's been suffocating much of the country this summer. Fingerprinting a single extreme-weather event as evidence of global warming--be it a heat wave, major storm, drought or flood--takes years of intensive study, though researchers are beginning to make such connections. The sheer number of factors that influence individual weather events is immense. But we do have a pretty good idea of how climate change will play out in the years to come--if it continues uninterrupted--and it will be a lot like this summer, last spring and last winter. In a report released on July 10, the National Climatic Data Center concluded that the odds that the unusual heat of the past 13 months was random were a minuscule 1 in 1.6 million. Statistically, that's a lock. "The frequency of hot days and hot periods has already increased and will increase further," says Oppenheimer. "What we're seeing fits into the pattern you would expect."
Here's what we should take away from the heat: climate change is real, and it's happening now. We can argue about what causes it, how to handle it and how to balance the costs of that action against the risks of doing nothing, but we need to surrender to the basic science. We're living in an igloo this summer, and the ice is melting all around us. Time to face facts.
Sources: National Climatic Data Center; Climate Communication; BMJ Open; FDA