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Attributing extreme weather events to climate change

Can extreme weather events - hurricanes, droughts - be linked to climate change? A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine establishes for the first time that science can now estimate the influence of climate change on these extreme events:

The findings, presented to White House and congressional leaders on March 10 by committee members who conducted the study and wrote the report, describes how the relatively new science of extreme event attribution has advanced over the past decade. This is owing to improvements in the understanding of climate and weather mechanisms and the analytical methods used to study specific events.

"An increasingly common question after an extreme weather event is whether climate change ‘caused' that event to occur," said committee chair David W. Titley, professor of practice in meteorology and founding director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Pennsylvania State University. "While that question remains difficult to answer given all the factors that affect an individual weather event, we can now say more about how climate change has affected the intensity or likelihood of some events."

Extreme event attribution is a fairly new area of climate science that explores the influence of human-caused climate change on individual or classes of extreme events compared with other factors, such as natural sources of climate and weather variability.

This is a big step, and there is a reason that science has moved slowly but irreversibly (in a parallel to climatic changes themselves) in the direction of linking changes in weather to changes in the global climate. Dr. Shepherd was among the experts who conducted this study and issued the report, and we salute his outstanding efforts as a voice of reason in this very contentious debate. But it is important to remember that scientists are not trying to have a debate, nor are they pulling for a side. They are using their expertise, the best of all we know, the very best of technology and new developments in the study of atmospheric mechanisms to help us understand what is going on. The implications of this report seem particularly clear.

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