Extreme Weather and Climate Change

Extreme Weather and Climate Change: Attribution Studies

When an extreme weather event occurs, such as flooding and heatwaves, or hurricanes and tornadoes, the question ‘is climate change to blame?’ often arises.

You might sometimes hear people say things like: ‘but we’ve always had heatwaves, I remember the heatwave from [insert year here]’. In 2022, scientists were quick to point out that the heatwave we in the UK, and many of our European neighbours, were experiencing, was vastly hotter and more dangerous than the heatwaves experienced in the twentieth century.

But how do scientists know that climate change is increasing the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events? For a long time, this was generally explained by making the link between an increasingly warm planet and increasing frequency and extremity of weather events.

But now, through advances in climate science, scientists can be much more detailed in their response to this question through ‘attribution studies’. Attribution studies help policymakers, scientists and us, the public, understand the link between human activities and observed climate changes, which can help us to tackle climate change.

In 2023-24, global land and sea temperature rises were broken month after month and 2023 became the warmest year on record. While a naturally occurring warmer “El Niño” weather pattern exacerbated these temperature rises, attribution studies have now shown that such heatwaves would have been ‘virtually impossible’ without human-caused climate change.

These studies make the case for accelerating progress in tackling climate change, such as phasing out coal and oil, and other fossil fuels and moving electricity systems to renewable energy, reducing reliance on combustion engine vehicles and introducing measures such as carbon taxes. You might hear these measures being referred to as ‘mitigation’ actions.

But in addition, these studies show how existing vulnerabilities worsen the impact of extreme weather events, which leads to loss of life and livelihoods. There are actions that governments can take to make communities more resilient to future extreme weather events, such as putting warning systems in place for example. In the UK, and elsewhere around the world, cities can be better adapted to climate change by, for example, increasing the density of tree cover to cool urban centres, reducing tarmac and replacing it with gardens and green spaces can enable effective drainage, to reduce the risk of flooding. This is often referred to as ‘adaptation’.

We will inevitably face more frequent, and intensive, extreme weather events caused by human-induced climate change. We have a responsibility to do everything we can to limit global temperatures rise to 1.5 degrees, but we also have the means to reduce our vulnerability to the impact and shocks that such events cause.

Written by Climate Change Communicator, Katie Moss.