You’re right. In fact, being on a hurricane watch in Southern California is extremely unusual.
If Hurricane Hilary continues on the trajectory currently predicted by meteorologists, it will be the first tropical storm to hit California since 1939 and only the second since the 19th century.
If this strikes you as a worrying development, one in a series of recent climate-related catastrophes that seem to herald the beginning of a deeply uncomfortable future, then you are right.
And the people who have spent their working lives pondering climate change and its likely consequences, who have read the newspapers, checked the models, and spent years warning of these potential catastrophes – they are concerned, too.
It has been 35 years since an explicit reference to climate change first appeared on the front page of a US newspaper James Hansenthen Director of the NASA Institute for Space Studies, testified before the Senate that “the greenhouse effect has been discovered and is now changing our climate.”
In the decades that followed, the effects of climate change loomed like the due date of an unpaid mortgage.
But 35 years is enough time for a mortgage to mature, children to grow up and have children of their own, and the long-feared consequences of a warming world to materialize.
It’s not a good feeling for climate researchers to be right.
“I used to think, ‘I’m worried about my children and grandchildren.’ Now I’ve gotten to the point of worrying about myself,” said Mike Flannigan, a wildfire professor at Thompson Rivers University in Edmonton, Canada.
The Times spoke to several researchers and climate experts about how the recent series of record-breaking and landmark events makes them feel. Your comments have been edited slightly for clarity.
“It’s just too much”
Daniel Swain is a UCLA climate scientist who studies how climate change affects extreme weather events.
This seemingly constant onslaught of extremes, unprecedented weather and climate events – yes, that’s different.
Yes, extreme weather disasters have happened before. But we are actually experiencing a rather dramatic escalation. While coverage is less, it affected the majority of the population in Canada’s Northwestern Territories evacuated last night [Wednesday] because all larger settlements are threatened by individual fires. All of them.
It’s an example of how so much is happening right now that it’s difficult to digest it all. It’s just too much. When it comes to extreme climate events this year, everything is everywhere at once.
When it comes to extreme climate events this year, everything is everywhere at once.
— Daniel Swain, UCLA climate scientist
The magnitude of global warming that we have seen is remarkably close to the mean projections for where we would be at that point. But is the increase in certain types of extreme events – and in particular the societal and ecological impacts of these increasing extreme events – greater than predicted? It’s fair to say that the answer is yes.
At this point, every unprecedented extreme heat event bears a human fingerprint. It would be exceedingly unlikely that a study would come out and say, “Oh, amazingly, this is a unique heatwave because it wasn’t made worse by climate change.” Good luck with that. The same is true for really extreme precipitation events. And in many places that’s increasingly true of things like wildfires.
“Climate change denial will cost us more and more lives”
CraigSmith is an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He specializes in deep–Marine ecosystems, whose fragile nature and slow recovery make them particularly vulnerable to climate change.
All these climate-related disasters happening in quick succession this year are extremely worrying! They make it clear that climate-related disasters are real and accelerating, increasing the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop realistic mitigation strategies as quickly as possible.
These catastrophic events, like the Lahaina fire, highlight the financial and human costs of climate inaction. Postponing investments in sustainable energy and climate adaptation (e.g. coastal retreats in response to sea level rise) is economical but immensely stupid. Climate change denial will cost us more and more lives.
‘We’re breaking new ground.’ And that’s scary’
Mike Flannigan is a fire scientist at Thompson Rivers University.
Things are crazy. We are in uncharted territory. And that’s scary. frightening.
I’ve been doing this for over 40 years and our temperature rise models are pretty darn good. But the effects are more severe, frequent and intense than I expected. In terms of impact, things are happening a lot quicker than I expected.
It’s always been like, “Yeah, I’m really worried about the future 30, 50 years from now.” Now I’m worried about what’s going to happen next year, let alone the next 10 or 20 years.
I worry about what will happen next year let alone the next 10 or 20 years.
— Mike Flannigan, fire scientist at Thompson Rivers University
I hope this year is a turning point, but I’ve been disappointed before. A colleague and I wrote an essay in the late 1990s that said, “Urgent action is now needed to address climate change.” I still give presentations, and I often end up saying, “Urgent action is needed to address climate change .” But I’m getting damn tired of saying this because we’re not doing enough.
“Climate protection should be seen as an act of survival”
Jonathan Parfrey is CEO of Climate Resolve, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit dedicated to just climate solutions.
Finally, people are becoming aware of the reality of climate change. Unfortunately, due to the phenomenon of climate inertia – the enormous additional energy absorbed by the oceans – the die is cast. Our future will be even hotter.
Climate activism should not be viewed as an altruistic endeavor. Instead, climate action should be seen as an act of survival, as a necessity.
This moment is a strange mixture of sadness and hope. On the one hand, I know how precarious our situation is. On the other hand, we have the tools and ideas that, when put into action, can make a big difference.