Attribution Science Linking Warming to Disasters Is Rapidly Advancing

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CLIMATEWIRE | For two decades, scientists have been getting better and faster at investigating the links between individual weather events and climate change. They can now analyze everything, from heat waves to hurricanes, and often can do it almost in real-time.

In the last few weeks alone, scientists have found that climate change increased the likelihood of catastrophic floods in South Africa and deadly heat in South Asia — events that both occurred this spring.

The field, known as “extreme event attribution,” has been one of the fastest developing areas of climate science since it kicked off in the early 2000s. And it’s still accelerating.

A panel of scientists and experts, convened yesterday by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, met to discuss the latest advances in attribution science and the ways they can continue to grow.

It is a sort of update on the field’s development over the past few years. Six years ago, NASEM published an in-depth report on extreme event attribution, evaluating the state of the science and recommending areas for improvement.

The report described a field still in its infancy but rapidly evolving. Scientists were still improving and standardizing their methods for conducting attribution studies.

“In 2016, extreme event attribution was still something very new,” said Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at Imperial College London and co-lead of the research consortium World Weather Attribution. “People were asking, “Is this really science ?”

The field has evolved over the years. There are hundreds of published attribution studies in scientific publications today. Scientists have standardized their methods so that they can quickly assess different types of weather events. Media coverage is extensive on attribute studies.

Scientists have discovered a lot of events that would not have been possible without climate change. They are also more adept at analysing certain types of events. Sometimes, research groups can complete investigations almost immediately after a weather-related event.

The field is expanding.

Scientists are still improving their analysis of the most complex climate events, such as wildfires. And they’re starting to link climate change not only to weather events, themselves, but also to the economic damages these events cause (Climatewire, May 18). Experts say that more studies are likely to attempt this type of analysis than the few that have tried it in recent years.

Experts also believe that attribution studies are starting to influence climate policy, climate related lawsuits, and the way the general public views climate change.

In recent years, hundreds have been filed around the world and in the United States for climate-related claims. Citizens have sued their governments over failure to protect them against climate change. States have sued fossil fuel companies because of their contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions, and for continuing increase in severe weather events.

“Attribution Science is a common topic in many of these cases,” said Michael Burger (executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, Columbia University).

While many of these cases have been dismissed over time, he said that it’s not because the science wasn’t strong enough. It is more often due to other legal intricacies.

In the future, attribution science will be more prominent in cases brought by cities and counties against fossil fuel companies, seeking damages for damage caused by extreme weather events or sea-level rise, Burger suggested.

” This is the area where we’re most likely to see these issues of extreme event attribution be front and centre,” he stated. “In cases seeking damages to specific actors’ contributions towards climate change .”

With event attribution in the spotlight, panelists offered a number of suggestions for the future.

Policymakers can sometimes be confused about how to incorporate attribution studies into climate action plans, according to Shannon Osaka, a climate journalist with Grist and an ex-academic researcher who studied the social perceptions of attribution science. There is still much to be discussed about how this science can impact climate policy in the future.

Attribution studies could also be expanded to include more information about climate impacts and damage caused by extreme events. They could also place greater emphasis on the reasons why some communities are more susceptible than others.

Attribution studies usually focus on how climate change has made a particular weather event more severe or likely to happen. It is important to examine all possible causes of an event that could impact public health and well being, including social inequalities and local resilience, adaptation, and mitigation efforts.

These kinds of issues can impact a community’s vulnerability for worsening climate catastrophes. They can have a positive or negative impact on certain groups of people.

” In the last few years, I think there has been more coverage of attribution.” Osaka stated. “And sometimes that coverage comes at the cost of focusing on vulnerability, and the way that a weather hazard can become a disaster through underlying socioeconomic circumstances

It’s important to emphasize that “it’s also climate change,” she said. “There are other hazards .”

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from

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