Donald Wuebbles: Severe weather trends clearly linked to climate change

Whether it is record-breaking heat or 100-year weather events that occur with increasing frequency, AAAS Fellow Donald Wuebbles believes that human-induced climate change is a factor in them all. Wuebbles, a professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is speaking at the AAAS Annual Meeting on the role of anthropogenic climate change on the increasingly extreme weather the U.S. has been experiencing in recent years.

Wuebbles shares in the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his role as part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He was part of a Federal Advisory Committee that published a report in 2009 on the potential impacts of climate change in the U.S. He is the Coordinating Lead Author for the next IPCC assessment of climate change to be finalized in 2014 and has been a leader in drafting the most recent National Climate Assessment.  

According to the Federal Advisory Committee Draft Climate Assessment Report released in January 2013, the average temperature in the U.S. has increased by approximately 1.5°F since 1895, with more than 80% of the increase occurring since 1980. The most recent decade was the nation's warmest on record, and NOAA recently confirmed that 2012 was the warmest year on record in the U.S.

Wuebbles explains the progress that has been made in climate change awareness, and what kind of weather patterns we might expect to see in the future.

AAAS Member Central: Almost every day in the news we hear about glaciers melting at unprecedented rates and islands soon to be submerged as the sea level rises; at the same time, the U.S. continues to experience unusually severe weather events. In your opinion, what might be the most dangerous scenario due to climate change that we face in the near future?
Donald Wuebbles, professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Illinois:
The impact of these increases in severe events is extremely large, both in terms of effects on human lives and our economy. In the U.S., we have been seeing an increase in the number of billion dollar weather disasters over the last 32 years, with 14 such events in 2011 and 11 in 2012. Some of this is related to our affinity for building on coastlines that can be affected by hurricanes, but even if hurricanes are removed from the NOAA analyses of these events, we are still seeing a sharp rise in the number of billion dollar disasters. So clearly, it is not "global warming" (a little warmer temperatures) as the press refers to it that is the issue, it is the changing climate driving an increase in such severe events that is the real concern.

AAASMC: In regard to the current state of manmade effects on climate change, we can't reverse the damage that has been done; but can we slow it down enough to make a difference? Or are we in "damage control" mode at this point?
At this point, we are primarily adapting by responding afterwards to the disasters. However, some places, cities like Chicago for example, are being proactive in preparing themselves, both by mitigation actions to reduce the future effects but also by adaptation policies to reduce the stress from heat waves and severe precipitation events.

AAASMC: As a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), you shared in the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore for the work being done to raise awareness of man-made climate change and to establish a foundation for measures needed to counteract the change. In the five years that have passed, what progress has been made?
Many more countries have become better aware of the changes occurring on our planet and are taking actions to reduce the future changes and resulting impacts. In the U.S., I think we are seeing an ever increasing awareness that the science is very real and that we need to figure out how to respond. Our actions in the U.S. have been more at the local level to this point, rather than as a nation.

AAASMC: What in your opinion are the most pressing measures worldwide that should be taken immediately to counteract the effects of global warming?
As a scientist, I focus on understanding how our Earth works and the changes that are occurring in the Earth's climate system, including the influence of human activities on climate. The evidence is strong that human activities are driving major changes in our climate. Therefore we do need to respond. However, I don't know exactly what would be the best responses to reduce our emissions especially from fossil fuels. Should we use a carbon tax or carbon trading? I don't know the answer myself, and I do not try to tell policymakers exactly what policies they should make. My role is to make it clear to them the value of what the science is telling us.

AAASMC: Now that President Obama has made climate change a priority in his administration, what measures would you like to see taken in the U.S.?
We need to find a way to mitigate, to reduce emissions, but there are a number of possible pathways to achieving this. We also need to adapt, we need to be ready for the changes in climate we cannot avoid.

AAASMC: Weather events and climate changes attributed to global warming appear to be accelerating at an alarming pace. Is that merely our perception due to better awareness of the problem, or is climate change actually occurring at an increasingly rapid pace?
Certain changes are clearly occurring at an accelerating rate. Some regions are definitely seeing an increased likelihood for heat waves (especially the western U.S.) and for droughts (especially the Southwest and the Southeast). All of the U.S. is showing a tendency for more precipitation coming as larger events even where the total rainfall may be decreasing. As a result some regions, especially the Midwest and Northeast, appear to have an increasing tendency for floods.

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