Weather on steroids: What to expect from a changing climate

| July 10, 2013
Flooding shut down the city of Calgary for days earlier this month, and resulted

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While Calgary celebrates its resilience at a "Hell or High Water" Stampede, Toronto is drying out after a dramatic storm that saw more rain fall in two hours than the city usually sees in the entire month of July.

Even if you don't live in Southern Alberta or Mississauga, floods are fodder for dinner-table conversations across the country right now. And more and more Canadians are asking whether what we're seeing is climate change.

Meteorologists are attributing this week's storm in Toronto to a slow-moving thunderstorm system. But as Environment Canada's David Phillips put it, "Nature was giving us a preview of what we may soon see" from global warming.

In other words, this is what climate change looks like in real life. It means cities at a standstill, the hassle of dealing with insurance claims, the loss of treasured mementos in flooded basements -- and in worst-case scenarios like we saw in High River, the tragic loss of life

Even when there are clear warnings of the risks, as we saw before Alberta's floods, experts usually hesitate to link specific events to climate change, because it's just one factor among many shaping the weather we experience and our vulnerability to it.

That's true, and it's absolutely fair -- but in a growing number of cases, climate change is playing an important role. The best way I've seen it explained is that greenhouse gases put weather on steroids. You can't say that steroids caused baseball legend Barry Bonds to hit a particular home run, but they definitely increased his odds.

This is particularly clear with extreme downpours like those seen recently in Alberta and Ontario. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, so more rain can fall in any given storm.

In a new report released last week, the World Meteorological Organization showed what the consequences of our greenhouse gas pollution look like on a global scale. The organization found that:

-  The decade from 2001 to 2010 "was the warmest decade on record since modern meteorological records began around the year 1850." Hence the report's subtitle, "a decade of climate extremes;"

-  Canada experienced the greatest warming in the North and Central American region, warming at nearly three times the global average. We've also just experienced our country's warmest decade on record;

-  Floods were the most "frequently experienced extreme climate event" over the past decade; and

-  While scientists "believe that it is not yet possible to attribute individual extremes to climate change, they increasingly conclude that many recent events would have occurred in a different way -- or would not have occurred at all -- in the absence of  climate change."

Flash flooding in Toronto Monday afternoon shut down many major roadways, including Hwy. 427, during rush hour. Photo: Elana Lappo/TheAlbatross.ca.

That's exactly what many of Canada's climate scientists have been saying. Experts like Gordon McBean and John Pomeroy (not to mention David Keith, Jim Bruce, Danny Harvey, Dave Sauchyn, John Stone and many others) have been doing fantastic work to help us connect the dots between the weather we're seeing and the fossil fuels we're burning.

I'm not a scientist; my work at Pembina is about sustainable energy policy. But climate change is the main motivation for the work my colleagues and I are doing. And what makes reports like the WMO's so scary to me is that the experts conclude we don't yet have the policies in place to contain the impacts of climate change or to prepare for its effects. So the consequences we're seeing today are the first smoker's coughs as we continue a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit.

Recently, it hasn't been particularly trendy to talk about climate change in Canada. (In the House of Commons, our government has been far more likely to talk about its dislike of carbon taxes than about the reason we might need one.) We're sometimes told that reducing greenhouse gas pollution is too costly, or that busy Canadians don't want the potential inconvenience of making greener choices.

Mentions of carbon taxes by Conservative MPs far outweighed mentions of climate change in the House of Commons this year.

But if you've shovelled mud out of a basement lately -- as many of my friends in Alberta have -- you might have a whole new perspective on whether taking action on climate change is too much of a hassle. And the costs of reducing greenhouse gas pollution pale in comparison to what Albertans are facing as they rebuild homes from the ground up.

So as David Phillips said, we can take this summer's storms as a preview -- but let's hope they convince us that we really don't want to watch the full-length disaster movie.

Clare Demerse is the director of federal policy at the Pembina Institute. This article was first published on the Pembina Institute blog and is reprinted here with permission. Donations can be made to the Red Cross relief fund to help those affected by the Alberta floods.

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Comments

Quote:
...experts usually hesitate to link specific events to climate change, because it's just one factor among many shaping the weather we experience and our vulnerability to it.

I keep seeing statements like this and wondering, just what are the "many" other factors besides climate that shape our weather? In fact, doesn't the very definition of an area's climate depend on its weather? Isn't climate the sum total of weather?

It's logically impossible for the climate of the planet, or of any part of the planet, to change without its weather changing. If the weather remained the same, in what sense would it be reasonable to talk about climate change?

So when we talk about climate change we are talking about changes in the sum total of all those things that go into making weather - ground topography, ocean currents, surface albedo, cloud cover, atmospheric GHG content, atmospheric water vapour content, solar energy, surface temperature, air temperature, etc. We say the climate is changing because some of those factors are changing, and therefore having an effect on the weather.

So why are we supposed to be so reticent to draw connections between the actual weather we get and climate change? The increased frequency and strength of severe weather extremes IS climate change. Why would "experts" hesitate to say so?

Here is what these lazy copy and paste news editors won't tell you and probably don't know or even care to know:

While science agrees climate change is “real and is happening” they do NOT however agree it will be a real crisis and science has NEVER said anything more than climate change “could” be a crisis. Not one IPCC warning in 28 years has ever said this comet hit of an emergency is as “inevitable” as the same scientists love to say comet hits are, as in; “eventual”.
If this were a real crisis, science would have ended the debate long ago by stopping saying “maybe” and started saying “WILL BE” a crisis, not just could and might and possibly and likely………

meme, 

This article tells of the predictive success of scientific theories that have been in the works for several decades, and have a track record of being used as explanations for melting ice, extreme weather, etc.. We adhere to these theories because they have explanatory value.  Ms. Demerse nicely summarizes some of the current thinking about why we should be very concerned.  

For those of us who are deeply concerned, it is insensitive in the extreme to tell others there is nothing to worry about, without also providing some reasons for any of the signs of warming we are currently seeing. I see no explanatory power/value in your conspiracy theory. It's analagous to telling a smoker they don't need to worry about lung cancer - the point of the article.

Science does NOT agree it WILL be, only could be.
Find me one single IPCC report that says a crisis is inevitable not just “possible” as they have only agreed it COULD happen and have never said anything more than maybe and could be etc. 
*What has to happen for science to say their crisis is inevitable not just possible?
*How close to unstoppable warming will they lead us before they say their climate crisis is as real as they say comet hits are?
*If it’s a real crisis science will end the debate when they issue a real warning for a real crisis.
*If “maybe” is good enough to condemn your own children………who is the fear mongering neocon?
*28 years of science only agreeing it “maybe” not “will” be proves 100% that it “won’t be” a crisis.
And get up to date:
*Occupywallstreet now does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded and corporate run carbon trading stock markets ruled by politicians.
*Canada killed Y2Kyoto with a freely elected climate change denying prime minister and nobody cared, especially the millions of scientists warning us of unstoppable warming (a comet hit).
*Julian Assange is of course a climate change denier.
*Obama had not mentioned the crisis in two State of the Unions addresses.

How many climate blame scientist lab coat consultants does it take to change a light bulb?


None. But they do have full consensus that it might change maybe and possibly and potentially and......

Amonlogue, some day these CO2 death threats you spew to our children will be a crime.

Science has never said and never will say their crisis is eventual. End of story bible thumper.

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