We’ve been hearing about climate change for decades. But extreme weather events like the devastating European floods and the recent 115-degree temps in the Pacific Northwest have people wondering if we’re closer to the end than we thought. Is climate change ramping up? Are we way ahead of models forecast by climate scientists?
Daniel Swain, a climate scientist and extreme weather expert at UCLA, says it’s more complicated than that. “I’m less convinced that recent events tell us that things are moving faster than projections have suggested,” Swain said in an interview with Grist. “But I am increasingly convinced that we’ve underestimated the impacts of some of the changes that were actually fairly well predicted.”
Responses among scientists vary. According to Swain, some are shocked while others say recent weather events are hardly scientifically surprising. “And I would generally fall into that latter group, actually, because I think where the divergence may be coming from is that I think historically there’s been a little bit of a lack of imagination regarding what different levels of warming actually mean,” said Swain.
The planet has already warmed between 1 and 1.3 degrees centigrade, which is enough to shift weather events enormously. In fact, that extra degree has had more consequences than many scientists expected.
So, are climate models useless if they fail to predict things like the recent Northwest heatwave? Swain says no. “Global climate models are designed and intended to simulate global climate. And in doing that, they do a really good job.” Instead, we need weather models for day-to-day localized weather events. Weather models predicted 115 highs in Oregon a week before they hit, though locals were skeptical it could actually happen.
Swain hopes that recent extreme weather will wake people up to the need to address this problem. If we’re already seeing these kinds of heatwaves, floods, droughts and hurricanes in 2021, what is 2050 going to look like? “I think we’ve had, from a broader societal standpoint,” said Swain, “kind of a failure of imagination in the sense that there hasn’t been enough conversation about what it really means to warm a degree or two degrees or five degrees, god forbid.”
Lead image via Pixabay