Extreme Weather: What is in Store? Who is to Blame?

Stephen Smith | August 26, 2011 | Climate Change, Energy Policy

This blog was co-authored by Amy Vaden.

It certainly seems that extreme weather events are becoming more commonplace. Scientific American recently reported that 2011 saw the sixth-highest number of tornado-related deaths ever recorded, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts a big hurricane season as well. This week, Hurricane Irene threatens the eastern coast. The impending storm will move through the Bahamas and likely make U.S. landfall on Sunday. According to the National Weather Service, Irene will create intense situations in cities and towns locations all along the coast.

Everywhere, people are discussing extreme temperatures and weather events.  Viewpoints appear daily in various media: Meteorologist Jeff Masters addresses these issues in his regular blog on Weather Underground; Joe Romm, editor of Think Progress’ blog Climate Progress, offers a regular update on the varying views surrounding climate change and weather. His postings include plenty of coverage of naysayers’ points, including one about Rush Limbaugh’s recent claims that the ‘heat index’ is a government-contrived conspiracy theory meant to convince us all that climate change is real.

Even the President seems to convincingly believe that the recent rise in ‘unusual’ weather occurrences is the result of climate change. In response to critics’ claims that low-temperature anomalies, such as record snowfall in Washington, D.C., discredit climate change, Obama explained, “The idea is that [as] the planet as a whole gets warmer, you start seeing changing weather patterns and that creates more violent storm systems, more unpredictable weather.”

Climate and weather questions arise everywhere from local coffee shops to major political debates. People from all backgrounds seem to be contemplating the question recently addressed by Knoxville’s Metro Pulse: Is our messing with Mother Nature making her mess with us? As always, for every point, there is a counterpoint; and the climate change debate rages: Is the climate really changing? Are humans causing this change? Are extreme weather events actually increasing, or are our communication methods simply becoming so advanced that we hear and see news from around the world more quickly? If climate change is real, is it related to more extreme weather? Media Matters’ video A Climate of Denial argues that “the facts of what’s happening to our world should not be a partisan issue… but many… have made it one.” The argument surrounding climate theory has become surprisingly political, sometimes religious, and increasingly personal.

However, there are certain scientific facts in this debate that do not bend to political or social pressures. Physical and chemical changes in our atmosphere are clear, inarguable prerequisites for more intense rainfall, droughts, and other disruptions to normal weather patterns. The amount of carbon in the air has been steadily increasing over the past 40 years.

Furthermore, according to Thomas R. Karl, director of NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, “the climate of the 2000s is about 1.5 degree Fahrenheit warmer than the 1970s.” The question, then, is whether these trends are in fact related – and whether rising temperatures and increased atmospheric carbon have anything to do with the third congruent trend: increasing occurrence of extreme weather.


In the Southeast, we have experienced firsthand the humbling effects of tornadoes and witnessed the flooding of the Mississippi River already this year. If we expand our timeframe, numerous unprecedented events from recent years immediately come to mind, including Hurricane Katrina, now almost five years behind us.

In his recent Pew-funded study on the matter, John Carey asks, “are the floods and spate of other recent extreme events also examples of [climate change] predictions turned into cold, hard reality?” “Increasingly,” he finds, “the answer is yes.” Carey does not necessarily argue that global warming is completely responsible for storms, but that it exacerbates their severity.

No singular weather event can definitively be attributed to global warming pollution, greenhouse gases, or climate change, and climate change deniers, as always, are working diligently to convince a majority in Washington that science does not support claims that human-related global warming pollution causes increased temperatures or extreme weather. This insistent denial stands in the face of real-time effects of a warming globe, such as the ongoing drought in Texas. Despite these hard-hitting examples, well-funded fossil fuel interests who stand to profit form the status quo will continue to spin facts and use the media for their purposes, and their lobbyists will continue to influence politicians in Washington.

The public awareness pendulum seems to both drive and respond to politics and media. Over the past 10 years, climate awareness grew exponentially; today, the disconnect between public awareness and public commitment is on the rise. Climate legislation seemed promising in 2010, but failed to clear the final hurdle. But one thing is clear: the weather will not stop to wait for the outcome of politics and social discourse.

In fact, science and weather are immune to disingenuous attempts to convolute facts and confuse the masses. Regardless of our society’s anthropocentric outlook, humans live within a physical world where conditions are dictated by science and physics. The economy, politics, and current celebrity news and events, try as they might, cannot alter the laws of nature. These human-contrived distractions don’t even have tangible reality outside of the human experience. Regardless of which political or economic theory prevails at a given moment, science and nature will follow their course.

Yet mainstream media remains embattled over nuance and rhetoric. The truth of the matter is that if climate change is in fact causing extreme weather, then we are making the damage more irreversible with every passing moment.

Although the failure of climate legislation was admittedly frustrating to climate and clean energy advocates, SACE understands that the last chapter on this issue has not been written. We refuse to be deterred or sidetracked by political and social distractions. We realize that no matter what, “Mother Nature bats last,” and we continue to advocate for clean, safe and sustainible solutions and mitigations that will be necessary in the future.

Additional Resources and further reading:

Scientific American Article citing NOAA

Scientific American’s Three-Part Series on John Carey’s Study on whether Climate Change causes extreme weather


Scientific American article on Nashville Flood

Scientific American article on Pakistan Flood

Rolling Stone Article – A Climate of Denial

Climate Reality Project

Bill McKibben’s speech at PowerShift 2011 (video)

Stephen Smith
Dr. Stephen A. Smith has over 35 years of experience affecting positive change for the environment. Since 1993, Dr. Smith has led the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) as…
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