Rough Weather Ahead | Catalyst Fall 2011
By Aaron Huertas and Brenda Ekwurzel
Earlier this year, the news was filled with images of flooding on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Though the floodwaters have subsided, communities along these rivers cannot rest easy—in today’s warming world such extreme weather is likely to become the “new normal.” Scientific data show that global warming is causing storms to become more potent: the amount of rain or snow falling in the heaviest 1 percent of U.S. storms has risen on average 20 percent over the past 50 years, with the Northeast and Midwest experiencing the highest increases (67 and 31 percent, respectively).
Unfortunately, many local, state, and federal planners are not taking these trends into account in their emergency planning—despite the billions of dollars’ worth of property damaged each year in the United States. Troubled by these oversights, UCS has reached out to scientists and other experts who can help communicate the urgency of the situation and build support for forward-thinking solutions.
Many Heads Are Better Than One
After spring flooding peaked in the Midwest, we held a telephone press briefing to help the media and the public understand the role global warming plays in such disasters, and the steps communities can take to both prepare for and help minimize future climate change. We invited Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University and one of the authors of the 2009 federal report Global Climate Change in the United States, to explain the connection between higher temperatures and more intense storms. Another guest speaker, Nikhil da Victoria Lobo, a senior vice president at SwissRe (a firm that insures other insurance companies against costly disasters), discussed the economic impacts of extreme weather. He pointed out that damage from natural disasters has risen from an average of $25 billion worldwide per year in the 1980s to $130 billion per year today.
While past and current emissions of heat-trapping gases guarantee at least some future warming, we can take action today that will help us not only prepare for the coming changes but also avoid even more catastrophic possibilities. Missy Stults, then the climate director for the international association ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, told reporters on our phone briefing that efforts to address extreme weather can also reduce heat-trapping emissions. For instance, investing in energy efficiency not only saves money and fuel, but also helps utilities manage increased electricity demand during heat waves (when use of air conditioning spikes), decreasing the risk of brownouts and blackouts.
A Cooler Forecast?
As part of our ongoing campaign, “The Weight of the Evidence: Promoting Climate Science for the Public Good,” we will continue to educate reporters and decision makers around the country whenever climate-related severe weather strikes. Following our phone briefing, for example, we launched a media tour with UCS staff and other climate experts, garnering newspaper, radio, and television interviews in flood-damaged communities. And we joined forces with scientists, economists, and business leaders in the wake of Hurricane Irene to address the impact of climate change on coastal communities.
By continuing to amplify trustworthy voices on these important issues, we can help set the record straight and convey the urgent need for action.
Aaron Huertas is a press secretary at UCS. Brenda Ekwurzel is assistant director of climate research in the Climate and Energy Program.
Learn more about our efforts to bring climate science into the national spotlight.