Extreme Weather Keeps Climate at the Forefront

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Extreme weather events this summer are serving to keep climate change at the top of political discourse. This is forcing decision-makers to factor it within crowded agendas — including war, energy security and rampant inflation. In the UK, headline-grabbing fires and temperatures could moderate some of the country's drift back toward fossil fuels seen in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. In the US, severe weather appears more to be deepening political polarization. It is reinforcing those calling for stronger climate action, while skeptics are urging a laser focus on energy security while noting that no individual weather event can be definitively linked to the changing climate.

Some of this year’s striking weather-related events include:

  • The London fire brigade has recently been its busiest since the Blitz during World War II, with fires breaking out across the city and first-time recorded temperatures above 40°C.
  • In Japan, the rainy season ended earlier than usual and the country has experienced intense heat since end-June, the worst since 1875. It has prompted warnings of a power crunch in the summer and triggered calls for power conservation. It’s a similar situation in Korea.
  • India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have experienced heat waves since May, which started earlier than normal. In India, it didn’t rain in March so it was hotter — the average temperature in March was recorded as the highest in 122 years. Many other Asian countries are experiencing heat waves now, including China, Japan and South Korea.
  • Wildfire season has already started in the western US, affecting states like California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. Further east, the Atlantic hurricane season in the coming months is expected to be above average in severity.

"Climate change is driving this heat wave, just as it is driving every heat wave now," said Friederike Otto, co-lead of World Weather Attribution, in a statement about the unprecedented temperatures across Europe in recent days. "Heat waves that used to be rare are now common; heat waves that used to be impossible are now happening and killing people."

Europe: Trend Reinforced

Climate never fell down the agenda in Europe, as the Ukraine war and security of supply issue strongly reinforce the trend toward more renewables and more energy savings. To be sure, Europe will push coal-based power generation this year and probably for a few years, but this is not considered a pushback on climate action — green activists are of course lamenting, but that's their role. Crucially, Europe plans to import more gas for now not because it wants to use more gas but, naturally, because it needs to substitute some Russian gas — and ultimately the intent is to use less gas.

European officials and leaders in countries most affected by recent weather have explicitly linked the extreme events to the climate crisis. “It is clear these erratic weather patterns are a consequence of the climate crisis,” Frans Timmermans, executive vice president of the European Commission in charge of the European Green Deal, said recently. Visiting areas hit by wildfires, French President Emmanuel Macron said these were a consequence of climate change. And declaring a state of emergency after a glacier collapse and severe drought in Italy, Prime Minister Mario Draghi said there was “no doubt” this is linked to the “climate situation.” Similarly, Spain Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has stated that “climate change kills,” while his Portuguese counterpart Antonio Costa argued that there’s “no time to lose” in taking steps to address this.

The UK is currently focused on a leadership campaign to succeed outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He championed climate action but there have been some concerns that the two contenders to replace him might dilute some green measures as they seek support within the ruling Conservative Party. However, recent polling suggested any new Prime Minister can’t lose sight of climate goals — with 70% of voters viewing climate change as a driver of the recent unprecedented temperatures in the UK, and more than half saying the heat wave makes them think governments and societies need to be more ambitious in tackling climate change, according to think tank The Energy and Climate Unit.

On Washington's Radar ...

In recent years, extreme weather is among several factors cited for a palpable yet gradual leftward shift in Washington on climate issues. Once reluctant Republicans have been acknowledging the need to address warming and a wider swath of Democrats are backing more drastic action to end fossil fuels. Since Biden’s inauguration, however, climate and energy have been nothing if not divisive, and that leftward shift has blurred.

While extreme weather events have lessened the tendency of GOP lawmakers to deny climate science in recent years, overlapping factors are at play, making the trend far from clear or linear. Notably, skyrocketing fuel prices and national security concerns in light of the Ukraine crisis have caused many congressional Republicans — plus centrist Democratic Senator Joe Manchin — to double down on resisting clean energy policies.

Wildfires and storms may become more relevant to US climate policy should the Biden administration opt to declare a national climate emergency, as some green groups have pushed in the wake of climate legislation collapsing earlier this month, which would unlock more authority for the administration to take stronger climate action. Legally speaking, climate change may not fit the textbook definition of “emergency,” which requires something to be “unforeseen,” and climate change is not a new federal concern, academics note. Yet pointing to record-smashing heat, deep freeze storms, and hurricanes seen in recent years could bolster the legal case.

US national security agencies have long pointed to extreme weather events as a national security threat, notes Dan Farber, a Berkeley Law professor. “In written testimony to Congress about threats to national security, the Trump Administration’s own Director of National Intelligence discussed climate change," Farber wrote earlier this month in the Legal Planet. “His discussion didn’t equivocate about the reality or dangers of climate change. Rather, he took the science, and the threat, seriously."

Biden, in remarks on climate action last week, leaned into recent examples of extreme weather: “We see here in America, in red states and blue states, extreme weather events costing $145 billion ... powerful and destructive hurricanes and tornadoes." He was citing the annual 2021 cost estimate from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the impact of storms, fires and floods, which is the third-highest level seen since 1980. “I’ve flown over the vast majority of them out west and down in Louisiana, all across America. It’s amazing to see. Ravaging hundred-year-old droughts occurring every few years instead of every hundred years. Wildfires out west that have burned and destroyed more than five million acres — everything in its path."

US national security is at stake as well, Biden argued. "Extreme weather is already damaging our military installations here in the States. And our economy is at risk. So we have to act. Extreme weather disrupts supply chains, causing delays and shortages for consumers and businesses."

... and Radar of US Voters

High-level government officials aren't the only ones taking notice. A recent survey of registered US voters by Navigator, designed as a guide for climate advocates, finds that 55% of independent voters believe this summer's weather has been different from past summers — a 12-point jump from last year. Of those voters, slightly higher percentages cited more droughts, wildfires, and tornadoes than last year’s survey for the same time frame. “Those who say that the weather in their community has changed are most likely to cite hotter temperatures and increased droughts and wildfires,” the Navigator report says.

Texas voters feel similarly. A poll conducted in February — nearly a year after a severe winter storm ravaged the state — found that 70% of Texas voters remain worried about a grid failure, and 64% connected the storms to climate change. The poll surveyed 933 registered Texas voters and was conducted by Nexus Polling, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. Of those polled, 55% responded they would prefer their energy provider use “renewable energy like wind and solar” compared to 4% who choose coal and 24% natural gas.

Competing Priorities

No matter the region, the picture is far from simple because climate and weather are competing for attention with many other priorities, from war to energy security to inflation. But extreme weather certainly keeps climate at the front lines of political discourse and compels decision-makers to factor it within already-packed agendas, especially given a growing perception that climate action can work complementarily with other priorities.

"The extremes of the debate will not be shifted — those [protestors] who were already gluing themselves to Shell headquarters will continue to do so — and those who argued that it is 'just weather' will not shift. My sense is that the softer center of the political spectrum can be swayed by such growing, concrete evidence," says Alex Martinos, Head of Energy Transition Research at Energy Intelligence. Extreme weather will "not wipe off" other issues from the agenda and the memories of extreme weather are bound to fade. But the examples and imagery can still be referenced, especially if they recur, Martinos adds.

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