Primer: What’s New (and What Isn’t) in the IPCC’s Report on Extreme Weather

Primer: What’s New (and What Isn’t) in the IPCC’s Report on Extreme Weather

The world’s leading science panel studied the link between man-made warming and wild weather for the first time. InsideClimate News examines its results.

By Katherine Bagley, InsideClimate News

Record heat waves, drought, floods, thunderstorms, tornado outbreaks—extreme weather battered much of the United States and parts of the world in recent years, causing an unprecedented number of deaths and economic losses.

What role has global warming played, if any?

The answer has implications that go beyond the ideological debate in U.S. politics over climate change. It affects, among other things, the future direction of the 19-year-old U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the main forum for the global fight to limit warming. To date its priority has been emissions cuts, or “mitigation,” to keep climate change in check. But is it too late for that, as some scientists now say? Is it time for “adaptation” (finding ways to live with heat waves, rising seas and flooded coastlines and scarcer water and food supplies) to finally share focus and UNFCCC resources?

Growing scientific evidence indicates that the answer to that question is yes.

Severe weather in the United States and elsewhere has grown more frequent since 1980. Contributing to the shift is the accumulation of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the air from human activities—though teasing out the exact contribution is tricky. 

As usual with climate science, there are uncertainties and complexities in the data on climate extremes, and skeptics have pounced on the unknowns to exaggerate doubts about the consensus on climate change and to make the case for inaction. To counter those charges, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading scientific body on global warming, has produced a new report designed especially for the world’s politicians that tries for the first time to clarify the link between wild weather and global warming. 

Specifically, the authors of the Special Report for Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX) wanted to know what the research says about whether greenhouse gas emissions cause extreme weather; who is, and will be, hardest hit by these disasters; and how can governments and organizations lessen the impacts.

In this primer InsideClimate News takes a look at what the IPCC gleaned from its two years of research into these questions.

Has “anthropogenic,” or human-caused, climate change already altered the frequency of extreme weather events?

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