Heat Wave: 5 myths about extreme weather

Jul 22, 2011

Jennifer Morgan, director of the climate and energy program at the World Resources Institute, will be online Friday, July 22 at 2 p.m. ET to discuss her Outlook piece on links between extreme weather and climate change.

It sure is hot. I’m working from home today – trying to stay cool despite the heat sweeping across the country today. Over the next hour, I’ll do my best to separate fact from fiction when it comes to extreme weather and climate change. While temperatures sizzle in DC some wonder if this is the “new normal” we need to get used to…

What do you believe is the best way to build consensus among Americans that human-caused global warming is a serious problem that needs to be addressed now?

Good question.  I think we need a mixture of greater coverage of the issues in a range of news outlets but also discussion forums on the local and state level so that people can understand the risks and make choices.  There just isn't much in the news today that provides the depth of relevant information that people need.

Hi. Can you explain why the Pacific Northwest has had an extremely wet cool spring and summer, while the rest of the country is sweltering? In Oregon, we've almost given up on summer. Thanks.

According to the US Global Change Research Program, annual precipitation has increased across the Northwest – 10% on average. There has also been a lot of variability from year to year. Warmer years are tending to be drier, while cooler ones are tending to be wetter.


But the cool temperatures won’t necessarily last on average: models project that the region will get warmer by about 3 degrees F by 2030 and 5 degrees F by 2050. Though precipitation will still be increasing across the region.


It seems that climate change has taken a back seat to the economy on Capitol Hill. What can be done to get the discussion of climate change back into the spotlight? I think federal sponsorship of green and eco-friendly technologies will help stimulate the economy, so why isn't this being discussed nationally as it was a few years ago? Curious to hear your thoughts on this, thanks!

It is indeed hard to find much debate on climate change these days.  This is a real shame as there is so much that can be done to both create incentives for the technologies you mention as well as the clarity for companies to be able to invest in clean energy.  I think we need to show people that they can both grow the economy and tackle climate change at the same time.  This is not an either-or.  Germany is a perfect example of this.  It has strong emission reduction targets along with policies for renewables and energy efficiency and continues to have a strong economy, creates new jobs and exports high quality products.  These real-world examples may help to move the ball.

The opening of the Today show was on the Heat, with mentions of the stark contrast to the wild winter, then they did a story on the Famine in Africa, next they did a little mention of record snow in Chile. I don't understand, it seems like extreme weather, floods, droughts, famine consistently make the head lines, exactly as climate scientists predicted they would. Why isn't anyone talking about climate change in the mainstream media? It seems to me that it's happening, right now. Am I just way off here, why can't I find any reports on this?

I agree that in the United States coverage of climate change is generally going under-reported. Especially, as we are seeing precisely the kinds of impacts that climate scientists have told us to expect. There are some exceptions, like NY Times Dot Earth blog, the Guardian UK (in England), and online outlets, like Grist, that do a very good job on this issue. But, overall, there has been a severe decline in quality coverage on climate change which only makes these issues more confusing to the public.


As a meteorologist, I'm curious: what in your background qualifies you for your job? (Seeing your degrees are a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Germanic Studies and a Masters of Art in International Affairs.) Who do you see as the most authoritative source of climate science? And do you work with NCAR/UCAR on climate change?

WRI focuses mostly on policy which is my background as well - in the international and national areas.  However,

we have a team of atmospheric scientists, economist and policy experts at WRI, with PhDs, law degrees and other expertise. We see the IPCC as the most authoritative source of climate science, given that it reflects the knowledge of leading climate scientists across the globe.  Regarding NCAR/UCAR, we devote the large majority of our work on policy, but we base our work on their findings, as well as that of other leading scientific institutions, such as the National Academy of Sciences, IPCC, and US Global Change Research Program.


Which is it? Do you think that the current heat wave is caused by global warming, exacerbated by it, or totally unrelated?

We can’t rule it out that this specific event has nothing to do with climate change, because we cannot attribute any event to human activities, but both the frequency and intensity of extreme events are expected to change in a warmer world. And we have already seen the nature of extreme events changing, including both increases in the frequency and intensity of heat waves.

Why has the US Congress failed to really understand this issue & do something! I know the House voted last session but the Senate didn't

Good question and one that I – and many of my colleagues – struggle with every day. Yes the House did vote and pass on a climate and energy bill in 2009, but the Senate did not.


I think it’s fair to say that there are some very powerful industries in this country that have a vested interest in preventing the U.S. from moving forward on this issue, and their lobbyists seem to have quite a lot of sway with members of Congress. Others are pushing hard to prevent the U.S. government from taking common sense action – like reducing pollution through the Clean Air Act. It’s pretty hard to move forward on reducing emissions without the policy frameworks and guideposts that are needed.  And, finally, there has been a concerted effort to go after any member of Congress that even mentions the “c” word.  This is deeply troubling – and some leaders, who would normally might speak up, are instead staying quiet.


That said, it doesn’t mean that the political winds can’t change – and the threat of climate change along with the global opportunities of clean energy means that these are issues we will need to deal with sooner rather than later.

Some farmers in the center of the UNA have been hit (where it hurts - in the wallet) by this heat wave. This area is also predominately Republican. If this extreme weather could be tied to climate change, maybe farmers would demand that their representitives take the issue of climate change seriously. What are your thoughs on that?

Climate change doesn’t recognize political ideology or geographic boundaries for that matter. While we have seen a rise in the politicization of this issue – there’s no reason that this necessary need to be the case.


My hope would be that farmers and others who are feeling the impacts of climate change would communicate their concern to their representatives on all levels and of all parties. Similarly, we have seen some traditionally conservative groups, like faith-based organizations and the military, take a very active voice in climate – and energy – discussions.


Unfortunately, the increase in extreme weather events and other long term environmental are having an impact on many different parts of our society—and we can all do our part to do something about it.

It is 100+F in Maine today - What can we expect in the future here in New England if something is not done soon in the US to seriously address climate change?

Great question. Under a higher emissions scenario, by later this century summer would arrive three weeks earlier and last three weeks longer!  Some cities that only witness three digit temperatures for a few days each summer could see on average twenty 100+ degrees F days.   If you are looking for more information on New England, I suggest looking at the http://downloads.globalchange.gov/usimpacts/pdfs/climate-impacts-report.pdf

Are you suggesting that every summer will be like this one from now on?

We don’t know what every summer will look like because there are still other factors at play that influence temperature. However, as our article notes, last month’s global average land surface temperature was the fourth warmest on record. And according to the US Global Climate Change Science Program, across North America heat waves are very likely going in increase in frequency. We’ve already seen a strong shift towards a warmer climate with increases in extreme high temperatures.  Not great news…

Why has global warming become an issue to be debated by politicians instead of an issue to be debated by scientists? When did global warming become politicized?

Scientists can provide the data and analysis for consideration but we actually need global warming to be debated by politicians because they are the only ones that can pass laws to put our country on the right track.   The closer we have been getting to action the higher the political stakes have risen and the volume of the debate has risen with special interests weighing in heavily.

How do you recommend we respond when those who remain willfully skeptical of the human impact on climate use every unseasonably cold day or massive snowstorm as "evidence" that climate change is a myth? They often seem unconvinced by explanations of the process' gradual pace.

To me, there’s a division between those who are honestly skeptical about climate science and those who are willfully skeptical – a group I would call “deniers.” Skepticism is something that we should expect – science is founded on rigorous debate, discussion, and testing theories over time. I think it’s very important to keep an open mind and engage with people who are honestly seeking to understand climate change. After all, these are not easy issues.


Deniers, however, who refuse to accept what the science is saying are tougher to know what to do with. It seems to me that the fact that nearly all the world’s scientists agree that climate change is happening and people are very likely the cause should be persuasive enough.


And, even if we aren’t 100% sure about all the causes and consequences of climate change – can we really afford to wait to find out?


We’ve had a lot of questions on science that are great but I don’t have time to do them justice in just an hour’s conversation so wanted to include some helpful links that provide some answers:



Which has recent records on extremes across the US



Which reviews the recent science on extremes across North America



Which presents the latest scientific consensus on observed changes and future changes



A great FAQ on extreme events and climate change



Which presents the latest scientific consensus on climate change impacts across the world and sectors



which has information on regional impacts

If we accept that humans are contributing to global warming and need to reduce our GHG emissions, what are the economic benefits of doing so? We hear a lot about the cost of shifting away from fossil fuels... do we really stand to gain financially from a clean energy economy, or is that just wishful thinking?

Excellent question especially during a time when costs are at the top of everyone's mind.  Quickly (there is a large literature on this subject) I think a place to start looking is to innovation and the lost opportunities the US is now seeing in clean energy technologies around the world.  Energy markets are global and the policies that other countries have put in place (eg China, EU) are allowing those countries to win the low carbon innovation raise right now.  This is not to mention the money saved from using energy more efficiently.  So, no it is not wishful thinking, but requires deliberate policy and investments to make it happen.

Do you see the political outlook for action changing based on the November 2012 election? Why hasn't Obama lived up to his 2008 campaign pledge to address Climate Change?

I sure hope so.  The President did come in with a pledge to deal with climate change and that has not been delivered upon yet.  Clearly, as this heat wave shows, this issue isn't going anywhere.  He still has an opportunity in this term to act and those who understand the urgency and importance of this issue need to engage much more actively so that the President in 2012 has no choice but to lead the country into a low carbon future.

Thanks for all the great questions. This has been a lot of fun and I hope you’ll keep grappling with these issues.


You can find out more about the World Resources Institute and our work on climate change—and other issues— at www.wri.org.


Have a great weekend – and stay cool!


In This Chat
Jennifer Morgan
Jennifer L. Morgan serves as WRI's Director of the Climate and Energy Program. Morgan leads WRI's climate and energy program strategies, policy development and implementation for the institute, and is responsible for day-to-day management of the 50+ person program.

Prior to WRI, she worked at E3G as its Global Climate Change Director, where she led the organization's climate change work on its full range of global activities. Prior to joining E3G, Jennifer Morgan led the Global Climate Change Program of Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), growing its climate program both in size and geography, with a focus on Asia Pacific.

Over nearly two decades, Jennifer has led efforts in the United States and internationally to reduce global emissions and advance global cooperation on climate change. Morgan has been cited in front-page articles in newspapers around the world on climate change and is regularly interviewed for radio and television programs.

She has a Bachelor of Arts from Indiana University in Political Science and Germanic Studies and a Masters of Art from the School of International Service, The American University in International Affairs.
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