The relentless, weather-gone-crazy type of heat that has blistered the US and other parts of the world recently is so rare that it cannot be anything but man-made global warming, a new statistical analysis from a top government scientist says.
The research by a man often called the “godfather of global warming” says that the likelihood of such temperatures occurring from the 1950s through the 1980s was rarer than one in 300. Now, the odds are closer to one in 10, according to the study by NASA scientist James Hansen. He says that statistically, what is happening is not random or normal, but pure and simple climate change.
“This is not some scientific theory. We are now experiencing scientific fact,” Hansen said.
Hansen is a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and a professor at Columbia University. However, he is also a strident activist who has called for government action to curb greenhouse gases for years. While his study was published online on Saturday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, it is unlikely to sway opinion among the remaining climate change skeptics.
However, several climate scientists praised the new work.
In a blunt departure from most climate research, Hansen’s study — based on statistics, not the more typical climate modeling — blames these three heat waves purely on global warming: last year’s devastating Texas-Oklahoma drought; the 2010 heat waves in Russia and the Middle East, which led to thousands of deaths; the 2003 European heat wave blamed for tens of thousands of deaths, especially among the elderly in France.
The analysis was written before the current drought and record-breaking temperatures that have seared much of the US this year. The new research makes the case for the severity of global warming in a different way than most scientific studies and uses simple math instead of relying on complex climate models or an understanding of atmospheric physics. It also does not bother with the usual caveats about individual weather events having numerous causes.
The increase in the chance of extreme heat, drought and heavy downpours in certain regions is so huge that scientists should stop hemming and hawing, Hansen said.
“This is happening often enough, over a big enough area that people can see it happening,” he said.
Scientists have generally responded that it is impossible to say whether single events are caused by global warming, because of the influence of natural weather variability.
However, that position has been shifting in recent months, as other studies, too, have concluded that climate change is happening right before our eyes.
Hansen hopes his new study will shift people’s thinking about climate change and goad governments into action. He wrote an opinion piece that appeared online Friday in the Washington Post.
“There is still time to act ... but we are wasting precious time,” he wrote.
The science in Hansen’s study is excellent “and reframes the question,” said Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia who was a member of the Nobel Prize-winning international panel of climate scientists that issued a series of reports on global warming.
“Rather than say: ‘Is this because of climate change?’ That’s the wrong question. What you can say is: ‘How likely is this to have occurred with the absence of global warming?’ It’s so extraordinarily unlikely that it has to be due to global warming,” Weaver said.