There was a time when advocates knew that linking weather events to climate change was a bad idea; it left the science open to criticism if Al Gore was giving a talk on global warming during a blizzard.
Yet since 2012, when SuperStorm Sandy was linked to climate change and a reason to vote for President Obama, claims that every weather event, be it drought or flood, hot or cold, is evidence of global warming, have gotten more prevalent.
It does more harm than good, according to a paper, because not only does it undermine climate science, it lends to the belief that if we cut CO2 emissions, tornadoes, floods and storms will subside. In reality, high-impact weather events have always happened and they always will happen and people need to be protected from them, not assuaged with the notion that driving an electric car will make them stop
Writing in Weather, Climate and Society, University of Manchester scholars instead argue that developing greater resilience to extreme weather events must be given greater priority if the socioeconomic impact of storms, like those that in Britain this winter, is to be reduced.
Professor David Schultz, a professor of synoptic meteorology, said in their statement, "One of the long-term effects of climate change is often predicted to be an increase in the intensity and frequency of many high-impact weather events, so reducing greenhouse gas emissions is often seen to be the response to the problem. Reducing humanity's impact on our planet should be pursued as a matter of urgency, but more emphasis must also be placed on being resilient to individual weather events, as this year's storms in Britain have so devastatingly shown."
In the past, society responded to weather disasters with calls for greater resilience, but the focus on man-made climate change has given climate timescales (decades and centuries) more importance than weather timescales (days and years). Schultz and co-author Dr. Vladimir Janković, a science historian specializing in weather and climate, say the short-term, large variability from year to year in high-impact weather makes it difficult, if not impossible, to draw conclusions about the correlation to longer-term climate change.
They argue that while large public investments in dams and flood defenses, for example, must account for the possibilities of how weather might change in the future, this should not prevent short-term thinking to address more immediate vulnerability to inevitable high-impact weather events.
"Avoiding construction in floodplains, implementing strong building codes, and increasing preparedness can make society more resilient to extreme weather events," said Janković. "But compounding the problem is that finding money for recovery is easier than spending on prevention, even if the costs of recovery are much higher."
This bias, say the authors, has a tendency to diminish the political dedication for preventative measures against extreme weather, regardless of whether they are caused or intensified by man-made influences. Yet, steps taken to protect society from the weather can protect the planet as well, they argue.
"Improving forecasting, increasing preparedness or building better infrastructure can increase resilience and reduce carbon-dioxide emissions," says Janković. "For example, greening neighborhoods or painting roofs lighter colours will both reduce the urban heat-island effect and reduce carbon-dioxide emissions through reduced air-conditioning costs, while making cities more resistant to storm damage would reduce emissions generated from rebuilding devastated areas."
Schultz added, "Linking high-impact weather events with climate change can be distracting; perpetuating the idea that reducing greenhouse gases would be enough to reduce increasingly vulnerable world populations, in our view, only confuses the public and policy-makers as to the socio-economic susceptibility to extreme weather.
"With or without mitigation, there is no quick-fix, single-cause solution for the problem of human vulnerability to socio-environmental change, nor is there a reasonable prospect of attenuating high-impact weather. Addressing such issues would give the world an opportunity to develop a two-pronged policy in climate security, reducing longer-term climate risks in conjunction with preventing shorter-term weather disasters."