Scientists have gone to great pains to differentiate between extreme weather than can or cannot be definitively linked to climate change. Yet, public and policymaker confusion about these connections abounds.
Most recently, three members of Congress and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) have made misleading or inaccurate public statements about climate change, often in the context of extreme weather. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) relies on the last definitive international scientific report on the subject, which found strong historic links for heat waves, coastal flooding and changes in precipitation along with weaker links for tornadoes and hurricanes.
Specifically, Gov. Christie was asked for the second time in recent months if Superstorm Sandy was linked to climate change. The governor correctly said that Sandy was not “caused” by climate change, but he failed to acknowledge how sea-level rise, which is caused by climate change, increased the size of Sandy’s devastating storm surge. As the state rebuilds, it’s not clear if the governor is integrating future sea-level rise into his plans. Meanwhile, Rutgers University researchers estimate that the state can expect 1.3 feet of sea-level rise by 2050 and 3.1 feet by 2100.
On Monday, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) included tornadoes in his discussion of extreme weather and climate change. At the time, his office says they did not know tornadoes were hitting Oklahoma. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) also linked a number of extreme weather phenomena to climate change in a floor speech, including tornadoes. UCS Climate Scientist Brenda Ekwurzel writes that because the historical tornado record is spotty, scientists don’t yet have enough evidence to determine how climate change is affecting tornadoes.
Finally, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee, used a Washington Post op-ed to spread increasingly common misinformation about recent surface temperature trends. In another blog post, Ekwurzel explains how natural variability and human-induced climate change are increasing global temperatures in a step-wise pattern.