Still, attribution scientists take numerous measures to avoid overstating how important climate change was to a given event. They look at many kinds of data from multiple sources, and often use mathematical tools that are more likely to underestimate than overestimate the role of climate change. And that’s for good reason: In a field focused on communicating with the public, trust is an invaluable currency, says Leo Barasi, an expert on public opinion and climate change who works with researchers and campaigners. Openly communicating negative results can also highlight just how important and striking the positive results really are. “It’s really important to quite publicly, openly, and proudly talk about” negative results, Barasi says.
And while it’s difficult to know for sure how much extreme event attribution has moved the needle of public sentiment on the climate crisis, Barasi thinks it plays an important role. In 2018, people throughout the Northern Hemisphere endured extreme summer heat, and numerous studies found that climate change had made those heat waves more likely. In Japan, those temperatures would have been almost impossible without the influence of climate change, according to one study. Simultaneously, the public discourse underwent a noticeable shift—in both the US and the UK, polls showed that concern about climate change rose in late 2018. While this time period also coincides with the emergence of Greta Thunberg on the international stage, Barasi believes that the extreme weather likely also contributed. “That sort of firsthand experience of an extreme weather event, combined with the very widely accepted credible science around it, I think was really important,” he says.
Much of the power of extreme event attribution comes from its ability to address the firsthand experience of people suffering through specific heat waves or floods—their hyperlocality. But this also has its downsides. Most attribution studies look at events in the Global North, says Roop Singh, a climate risk adviser for the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Center. “Scientists have, of course, their own interests, and they’re interested in what’s happening in their own backyards,” she says.
But extreme weather can have the most dire effects in precisely the areas that receive the least attention. “There are communities around the world that are more dependent directly on natural resources, they’re more exposed to weather and climate conditions,” Deepti Singh says. These disproportionate effects have inspired Singh to undertake research focused on her home country of India, where poor, rural populations are particularly vulnerable.
Slowing climate change is important in mitigating those effects—but addressing the other factors that contribute to them, like poverty and underdevelopment, is more likely to make the crucial difference in saving lives and livelihoods. “The fact that heat waves are so deadly, for example, is because we don’t care, as a society, about the poor people in bad housing with underlying health problems,” Otto says. “It’s not because of climate change, per se.”
These effects depend on structural issues, not to mention a host of contingent factors—a heat wave will be more deadly in a retirement community than a college town, for example. So it can be difficult to link climate change to the concrete effects that most matter to people. But scientists have started to make progress. Recently, for example, Diffenbaugh published a study linking climate change to financial costs from reduced crop yields. Another study out this year concluded that, across the world, 37 percent of heat-related deaths can be attributed to climate change.
“Impacts happen because of the context in which a disaster happens,” Roop Singh says. “Extreme event attribution starts the conversation. But in order for us to really answer those questions, we actually need to do a lot more science.”
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