The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
Gary Yohe is the Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies, Emeritus, at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.
Extreme weather events are now among the most destructive ever experienced. Climate and weather disasters in the United States since 2010 have averaged $80.2 billion in economic damage with 521 lives lost per year. But the reality is, that number is going up. Between 2015 and 2019, annual damages averaged $106.3 billion with 772 lives lost.
None of this is news to people who have been impacted by extreme weather and to scientists like me who have been paying close attention to these troubling trends. For decades, variable climate trajectories have wobbled along their trend lines as atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide resulting from human activity have increased since 1955 to produce seven of the hottest 10 years in history since 2010.
We’re starting to see these impacts manifest themselves in the weather we’re seeing, and the science is now telling us that something new and even more threatening is afoot. It is called “regressing toward the tails” — a very technical but very important new development.
What is it? It is the increasing tendency that extreme events caused by climate change never seem to be as bad as they could have been. While that doesn’t sound like cause for alarm, what it really means is that it is ever more likely that the next extreme weather event — be it fire, flood, drought or heat wave — will be even worse than anything that we have previously experienced. So as a result of climate change, the most damaging impacts we’ve seen so far is becoming the new normal while Mother Nature keeps upping the ante.
Take a look at the worst wildfire year in California’s history: 2017. As of Dec. 22, 2017, 9,270 fires had burned 1,548,429 acres, but this year has topped that. As of Oct. 2, more than 7,900 fires had already burned 3.6 million acres with two months left in the fire season. In fact, the largest wildfire in California history has been joined since August by the third, fourth, fifth and sixth largest of all time, and they are still burning.
Things are not just getting worse. They are also getting harder to control, prevent and predict. Human behavior used to be the usual cause of California fires, meaning future threats could be mitigated by taking strong proactive action against future events. But this year, residents can only retreat from the harm as quickly as possible and hope that the climate will change back. But the climate will not change back, and where can they go? As we continue to see, the COVID-19 pandemic is confounding evacuation efforts.
The science community has been studying these weather events closely and has developed a growing understanding of what is really going on, but we are now challenged to communicate that knowledge clearly to the general public and lawmakers.
There are at least four problems in this regard. First, people often mistake weather for climate. Second, they really don’t care whether next year will be warmer or cooler than this year. Third, they find it difficult to internalize signal from noise along long-term trends. And fourth, they are very familiar with pendulums.
What’s the problem with pendulums? They give people a false sense of predictability and a misguided sense of stability. The climate pendulums are no longer returning to equilibrium at their lowest points in their arcs. Why? Because their pivot points are moving and accelerating in a dangerous direction (the long-term trends) so that the swinging weights of the pendulums are blowing by their historical limits into some very dark extremes.