What can we do about the weather?

Growing up in New Mexico, being in a drought seemed normal.  Over the 4th of July, we would listen to the news to find out if firecrackers were completely banned that year due to the drought or if we just needed to exercise extreme caution when using them.  When we had our annual end-of-the-year water balloon fight in elementary school, I would always have a niggling feeling of guilt for wasting all of that water.  If I was planning a camping trip with friends, we would check the fire danger levels to make sure that we would be allowed to make a campfire.  Indeed, even now that I live in the Northeast US, I can't fall asleep when camping unless we've thoroughly extinguished every campfire ember.  

On one visit home to Albuquerque from college in 2011, my dad and I were interrupted from a conversation in our living room by a strong smell of burning wood.  When we looked outside, we could hardly make out the Sandia Mountains (in whose foothills my parents' house is nestled).  The smoke from the >530,000 acre Wallow fire in Arizona had spread to Albuquerque, some 200 miles away, and would continue to be blown further across the Midwest US.  

 View of the Sandia Mountains from my parents house on a relatively clear day.  During the 2011 Wallow fire in Arizona, these mountains were completely obscured by the smoke blown into Albuquerque.

View of the Sandia Mountains from my parents house on a relatively clear day.  During the 2011 Wallow fire in Arizona, these mountains were completely obscured by the smoke blown into Albuquerque.

While the prevalence of fire hazards in the desert Southwest is to be expected, it does seem that they're getting more frequent and bigger.  Fires in California seem to have become a regular occurrence, with fires in the Santa Barbara area forcing people out of their homes in December and several fires raging around California right now (including a "fire tornado" in the Sacramento Valley).  Even though I am not a climate scientist, when one of these fires happens, my family and friends immediately ask me whether the fire was caused by global warming.  And that's an important question to answer. 

When I was in college, I took a course called Natural Resource Economics.  One of the things that I learned in that class is that a big challenge to addressing environmental issues is that it is very difficult to put a cost on the damage we do to the environment.  When we pollute by driving our cars to work (I hate to say this is something that I contribute to), the impacts are not going to be felt immediately, or even locally.  Because of the dissociation between our actions and their consequences, it is difficult to convince individuals (or even policy makers) that policy solutions are necessary to protect our environment.

This challenge is even more daunting when it comes to weather events like droughts and fires.  As I mentioned, living in a desert, one gets used to constantly hearing about drought.  The weather can be unpredictable and it's hard to tie any individual event to the larger-scale issue of climate change.  How do we know that this particular drought wouldn't have happened without global warming?  If it was going to happen anyway, why should I pay for a more fuel efficient car?

With this seemingly unanswerable series of questions in my mind, I stumbled across an article in Nature discussing the feasibility of regular climate attribution reports.  These studies determine the relative likelihood of a large-scale weather event (like a drought or large-scale heat waves) given the assumption of no anthropogenic forcings as compared to the assumption of the true historical human impact on the climate.  In other words, have our actions led to a climate scenario where this weather event was more likely to happen?  Of course, the Earth is a complicated system.  It's unlikely that any responsible scientist would ever be able to definitively say that this fire would not have happened if not for climate change.  Indeed, efforts to increase funding for global fire monitoring are essential to developing a solid historical scientific database necessary to assess changes in fire frequency and severity.  However, being able to assign a probability value to a damaging weather event offers us an immediate opportunity to assess the cost of ignoring our impact on the environment in financial terms and also in impact on human lives.  This ability to put a value on the damage caused by climate change will help us to address the larger problems of human impact on the atmosphere and climate rather than trying to address only the local symptoms of the problem.

Making these connections offers us an opportunity to take real action to reduce the risk to society from climate-related natural hazards.  So rarely is it even remotely within our control to impact the prevalence of natural hazards such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.  Shouldn't we take action when it is?

Hannah Rabinowitz