Lately, every click of the radio button, change of the TV channel or turn of the newspaper page seems to unfold news of yet another natural disaster and how little progress guys named Joe are making on what to do about it.
Already in 2022, wildfires have forced thousands of people to evacuate in France, Morocco, South Korea, Turkey and Argentina, to name a few. Catastrophic flooding in India, South Africa, Madagascar and Brazil, tropical storms in the Philippines and Mozambique and volcanic eruptions in Tonga and Ecuador are so significant that NASA is monitoring them from space. The world watched last week as massive, weird waves crashed a wedding party in Hawaii.
Some crises, like the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine, result in periodic upticks in news consumption as people attempt to stay informed about global events. But a recent study by the Reuters Institute found that, overall, worldwide news avoidance is on the rise, with 36% of avoiders turning away from news coverage because of the negative impact they feel it has on their mood.
One 27-year-old male survey respondent explained that “I actively avoid things that trigger my anxiety and things that can have a negative impact on my day. I will try to avoid reading news about things like deaths and disasters.”
These trends are especially pronounced in the United States, with 15% of 2022 survey respondents saying they avoid the news entirely compared to just 3% in 2013.
And who can blame them? The climate crisis is distressing, and managing mental health is important. But ignoring the news does nothing to keep these disasters at bay.
In the U.S. alone, between 2017 and 2021, 89 weather and climate disasters killed 4,557 people and cost taxpayers $788.4 billion, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That’s 17.8 events, 911 deaths and $157.7 billion spent on disasters in each of the last five years, on average. Compare that to the average throughout the 1980s of 3.1 events killing 343 people and costing $20.2 billion per year.
So far in 2022, President Biden has declared 27 major disasters through the Federal Emergency Management Administration. These “natural” disaster events range from tornadoes and flooding in Montana, the Dakotas and Minnesota to landslides in Alaska, Hawaii, Washington state and Puerto Rico to abnormal winter storms in Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia to megafires in New Mexico and, likely, soon in California. As of June, the federal price tag for just nine of these events had already hit $10 billion.
Only, these disasters aren’t exactly natural. There is strong scientific consensus that the escalating severity and frequency of so-called-natural disasters has been magnified by man-made climate change, which is caused by the increased concentration of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels resulting in more heat and energy being retained in the atmosphere and catalyzing chaotic weather.
Jonathan Overpeck is a climate scientist who has spent his career leaning steadfastly in to this bad news. A former director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Arizona, he spent 19 years studying climate change from the desert southwest and helped author reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the international scientific authority on the topic.
In 2017, he accepted a job as dean of the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability and relocated to the upper Midwest with his wife, who is also a climate scientist, in part because of that region’s slightly better climate outlook.
In the midst of what seems like a summer spike in bad climate news, The Arizona Republic caught up with Overpeck to find out what in the world is going on, how scientists know human-caused warming is to blame and why you should tune in instead of checking out.
When you pay attention to the news lately, it feels like everything is burning, flooding, drying out, melting and freezing over all at once. As a climate scientist, what can you tell us about what’s behind this series of events?
Well, you know, climate scientists predicted decades ago that one of the things that would happen with continued climate change would be more climate and weather extremes. As it turns out, if anything, we underestimated how fast and hard this situation would worsen.
One of the things I worked a lot on when we were in Arizona was how temperature affects drought and how it affects a water supply. Just about any gardener, and certainly any farmer, knows that the hotter the day, the more water you have to apply to keep your plants happy. That’s essentially what’s happening in much of the world and, certainly, Arizona is ground zero for this. Worsening droughts can come on much more quickly because of this extra warming.
The other side of the hydrologic cycle is more intense precipitation, because the atmosphere can hold more moisture when it’s warmer, and often does. And, by the way, we can measure that with satellites, just as it was predicted decades ago. So, what’s interesting is that you’re seeing the dry extreme really plaguing the West. But then the wetter side of the equation is more of a problem out here in the Midwest, as well as other parts of the world. China this year got a lot of flooding, for example, and they’re getting a lot of heat waves at the same time. So, paradoxically, you can get droughts and flooding, both due to the same cause of the atmosphere holding more moisture because it’s getting warmer.
Then you have to think about things like dust storms. In Arizona, because of the water crisis, we’re allowing more fields to fallow and that means more sediment that can be blown around. If you go down and try to drive east from Tucson, you start hitting where they have to shut down the interstate because the toxic dust storms are so bad and getting worse. The drought also dries out the vegetation and that’s why we’re getting much worse wildfires. We got the worst wildfire ever, I think, in New Mexico this year, but we had really bad ones across the Southwest recently, including California and Arizona.
So, that covered your part of the world. Further to the east, hurricanes are getting more powerful because the oceans are warmer. You’re getting peak velocities that are causing this incredible rainfall and flooding damage. Waves can be bigger when winds are stronger. It all comes back to this warmer atmosphere. Just recently, people have started to talk about whether climate change spawns more severe tornadoes. We don’t really know for sure, but it certainly causes them to occur more and in the cooler seasons when you didn’t have them further north.
Half of the sea level rise is because the oceans are getting warmer. Over 90% of the heat we trapped with greenhouse gases has gone into the oceans. They’re expanding and, like a hot air balloon, when they expand they have to go up. We’re getting about the same amount of contribution from melting ice. Any of these things you want to talk about, they’re all being caused by warming in the atmosphere that’s been caused by increasing greenhouse gases, primarily due to burning fossil fuels.
How should people think about these weather phenomena in the context of what has been normal in the near and distant past and what we might expect in the future?
One of the real problems we have in society is that we all, whether you’re a normal citizen planning your wedding party or you’re a water engineer planning flood control or a major project on the Colorado River, you’re designing things for some kind of climate.
You decide when you go out for the day, even in Phoenix, whether you’re going to bring an umbrella or not, and a lot of folks are drawing on their historical sense of the range of conditions they could get. What you’re not taking into account, probably, is that the monsoon rains can come down harder in 2022 than they did back in 1990 or so. So, all of a sudden, my route home, I can’t drive those washes anymore, or the people who built the infrastructure on the Colorado River, everything is designed for a climate that doesn’t exist anymore. Our frame of reference tends to lag.
In the 1950s and 60s, for example, the southwest had a drought that was mostly all due to precipitation deficit. We didn’t get the rains. Now the drought we’ve had since 1999 is at least half (due to) temperature. Evaporation takes about 10% of the Colorado River water each year. And moisture gets sucked out of the soil and vegetation and becomes water vapor, which also causes warming. As we go further into the future, the temperature component keeps getting bigger and bigger. So that means the droughts have a higher likelihood of being worse. Then, when the rains do come, flooding will be more of a problem in the southwest, just as dust, just as wildfire.
Reality is that most people don’t really pay attention to what’s going on with the climate. Fortunately, for climate scientists or an inquisitive journalist, you can pay attention to what the science is. And starting in the 1970s, we were starting to utilize these climate models that were capable of saying how things were going to change for different levels of CO2 increase and other greenhouse gas increase.
We knew that it was going to get warmer. We knew that we would see more heat waves and extreme heat. We knew then that we would start to get more extreme precipitation and we’d also start drying out in some places. The old adage when I was in grad school 35 years ago was that “wet places would get wetter and dry places would get drier.”
Yes, there’s always been climate change. But we cannot find any analogue of what’s going on now in the tree ring record, in the ice core record, in ocean sediments, in coral and stalactites that record past conditions going back thousands of years. In the past there’s been warming, but it’s regional or hemispheric. It’s not defined global warming.
Where the uncertainty lies has been exactly where and how fast. Now we have better climate models, a better understanding of the processes and longer observed climate records. All these things give us a much better understanding and ability to project what’s going to happen in the future. We still have a little trouble with how fast and how bad, but we know they’re all going to get worse in the future, probably at a pretty steady clip. And it’s going to really hurt a lot of what we do in society, both in terms of costs and in terms of lives and livelihoods, if we allow this to continue.
What can we do to prepare for what’s to come?
John Holdren, who was Obama’s science advisor and is still a professor at Harvard, said we have three options: We can adapt, we can mitigate or we can suffer.
The way I like to think of it is, we don’t want to suffer but we are suffering. We’re going to have to realize that we don’t have a choice. We’re already at 1.2 degrees of warming (Celsius) right now. So we’re going to go beyond 1.5, probably. That means we’re going to get about twice the extremes we have now. And some of the effects are nonlinear, meaning they’re accelerating.
We have to figure out how to adapt. There’s a lot of science on this going on in Arizona and academia and in the federal government. Good examples are ‘how are we going to get by with less water?’ The Colorado River is declining. The big reservoirs can really dry up if we aren’t careful. There will be no Central Arizona Project water delivered to Phoenix, for example, if that happens. You’re already seeing the shift of agricultural water use to municipal and suburban water use. We need agriculture. But maybe we don’t need it year-round. You can also figure out how to use less water to irrigate crops, or shift crops. That’s adaptation.
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Another good example of adaptation is managing our forests for fire more effectively. And clearly, we’re not doing a great job there. Up to now, the U.S. Forest Service hasn’t had enough money to manage forests. And they have to use climate science and have more observations and better models. All that costs money.
If you’re on the coasts, you have to start building less and moving more of the infrastructure (inland). If you’re in the Midwest, you have to start rebuilding bridges and dams and roads to withstand intense floodwaters. The list goes on and on.
In the end, we should be able to create a lot of jobs, both in adaptation and mitigation. We should be able to replace fossil fuels with low carbon energies that will not only stop climate change from occurring, but should also clean up the air. We really have to change over from internal combustion cars and trucks and trains to electrify mobility. We have to electrify everything to run on renewable power sources.
Arizona and the Southwest can be a huge energy exporter of clean, renewable energy. And in doing so, stop climate change, stop the drought, stop the water crises, stop the wildfire crisis, get cheaper energy for people in the world and clean up air air pollution. It’s like a win win win win win.
But, you know, to this day the Republican politicians are almost to a person gonna say “we don’t do that. That’s a Democrat thing.” And it’s hogwash because they’re selling their own constituents and future generations down the river and destroying Arizona long term. Lower income communities, disadvantaged communities, communities of color, and Native American communities get hit harder when the richer communities that can afford to sit in air conditioned splendor do nothing.
You have to realize that we will reach a point where certain things cannot be adapted to. In Arizona, you will start to get temperatures where you will not be able to go outside without serious harm to your body. You will start to run out of water in a serious way. Allow it go too far, and there are planetary boundaries beyond which you cannot adapt.
Joan Meiners is the Climate News and Storytelling Reporter at The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Before becoming a journalist, she completed a doctorate in Ecology. Follow Joan on Twitter at @beecycles or email her at email@example.com.