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On Extreme Weather and Climate Change

The New York Times ran a front-page story on Sunday that tackles a thorny scientific and political issue: whether individual extreme weather events are evidence of long-term shifts in climate.

According to the Times, the answer is “probably.”

In reality though, the answer to this question is much more subtle, as the Times article notes later. While a warming planet will likely feature more extreme weather, scientists say it’s nearly impossible to blame global warming for any one weather event.

The Times puts it this way:

Theory suggests that a world warming up because of those gases will feature heavier rainstorms in summer, bigger snowstorms in winter, more intense droughts in at least some places and more record-breaking heat waves. Scientists and government reports say the statistical evidence shows that much of this is starting to happen.

But the averages do not necessarily make it easier to link specific weather events, like a given flood or hurricane or heat wave, to climate change. Most climate scientists are reluctant to go that far, noting that weather was characterized by remarkable variability long before humans began burning fossil fuels and releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

But that likely won’t stop climate skeptics and believers from pointing to extreme weather to bolster their already-hardened positions. In the winter, we’re certain to see some Republicans point to snow storms as evidence against global warming (see the “Al Gore effect”). And some environmentalists are just as guilty, using heat waves and massive storms as a call to action on climate change.

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