Credit Where It’s Due: Attributing Weather Events to the People Responsible


The weather this summer in the Bay Area has been nothing short of awful. And with me being what my friend calls a “High Priest of Ra,” it’s been posited that my missing a sacrifice or committing some other ungodly affront has resulted in this madness. We’re talking stretches of frigid weeks in July, a sunless, cold anti-summer, followed by sudden August temperature spikes reaching 104 degrees and literally melting the candles in my apartment. 104? I mean, this is San Francisco. Are you kidding me? Dear Lord, could it really be my fault? Do the weather gods care about us humans and what we do here on earth?

Evidently they do care. A lot. Human-induced global warming and our fossil fuel mission/vision of burn ’em if we got ’em has someone or something pissed off. Big.

We’ve all had the conversations that start with “How many hurricanes was it this year?” or “The summers have never been like this before!” or “When I was a kid we’d have snow days where we couldn’t even leave the house! What happened to those?”

Invariably, these openers are followed by, “Yeah, right, and there’s no global warming.” Indeed, for general weather phenomena like these, science has been emerging that shows connections between human activity and broad brush climatic change.

But take the conversation a step further to speak about a certain climatic event – the Russian heat wave, say, or Pakistan flooding – and it becomes more challenging to point to a particular culprit. While we all seem to instinctively know there’s a connection between specific weather events and what we’re up to on the ground, the science hasn’t been there to make absolute links, as in “that flood came from that weather pattern which came from those countries burning this much fossil fuel back in these years.” Capiche?

Scientists are beginning to capiche.

Earlier this month, white coats from all over the world gathered in Broomfield, Colorado, at a National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and International Group on Attribution of Climate-Related Events (ACE) workshop series on the “science, application, and communication of climate attribution information.” As defined by the NOAA, climate attribution is “a scientific process for establishing the principal causes or physical explanation for observed climate conditions and phenomena.” This includes attribution for variations “for which great public interest exists because they produce profound societal impacts.”

In other words, what’s behind the mega-weather headlines.

Not too long ago, our ability to address such questions would have been dismissed, says an article in New Scientist. “Many scientists at the time [a decade ago] said that you can never blame an individual weather event on climate change,” says Myles Allen of the University of Oxford.

But attempts to assign blame for such events goes back to 2004, when Allen and others “showed to a high level of confidence that human greenhouse gas emissions had at least doubled the risk of the European heatwave of 2003.” Their research approach required them to “run thousands of simulations of the climate as it is and as it would have been without human influences, then compare the number of times a given event occurs in each scenario.” Today, technological adavances will enable to such analyses to be much more accurate.

One of the worlshop’s attendees, Dr. Claudia Tebaldi, of Stanford’s Carnegie Institution, says that research already has been able to attribute causes of  trends in continental scale temperatures, large area-averaged precipitation trends, ocean temperature trends, long-term changes in atmospheric humidity and more to, well, us.

“Using sophisticated computer modeling and high quality observations,” she writes, “we are able to say with great confidence that in these changing aspects of our climate system, the fingerprint of human causes is already evident.”

Now the the goal is use new methods to get even more specific regarding particular events and their causes. And while forecasting is of primary importance, right now there’s a lot of buzz around the legal implications of pointing accurate fingers. For example, can one country sue another for activity that can be proven to be responsible for something as devastating as a flood, heat wave or famine?

In 2005, Katrina victims filed a lawsuit against some oil companies, saying their activity in the Gulf contributed to the power of the hurricane. The case was recently dismissed due to a legal glitch, but you get the idea. Big implications here.

Connecting weather events with their causes is going to be a huge undertaking in upcoming years. As climate changes have increasingly profound effects on the lives of millions, people are going to want to know the whys and whos and hows and, hopefully, how to predict and prevent catastrophes going forward. And leaving it up to the gods just ain’t going to cut it. (Sorry, oh dear and powerful Ra. Can I have some more summer please? Just a little? What do you want? A dead goat?)

Image: crowt59

Scott Adelson

Scott Adelson is EcoSalon's Senior Editor of HyperKulture, a monthly column that explores opening cultural doors to initiate personal change. He is also the author of InPRINT, which reviews and discusses books, new and old. You can reach him at