This Summer's Weird Weather Is the Death of Predictability
The town of Gallargues-le-Montueux, on the ride from Montpellier to Marseille along France’s Mediterranean coast, got the worst of the heat: over 114 degrees Fahrenheit, even hotter than during an infamous 2003 French heat wave. The whole country—the whole continent—sweltered through eye-popping, Aperol spritz–defying, asphalt-crumbling temperatures this past week, capping a month that European satellite data showed was the hottest June in Europe since people started keeping track. France cooked; Spain hunkered down under wildfires that burned thousands of acres.
Meanwhile, Antarctic sea ice is melting faster than anyone predicted. The region around the Mississippi River in the midwestern United States is still dealing with floods on a scale unseen since the catastrophic levels of 1993. A heat wave in Northern California roasted tens of thousands of Bodega Bay mussels in their shells. It’s not just about blistering heat: In Guadalajara, Mexico, a freakishly large hailstorm followed by torrential rains left the mountain town digging out from under three feet of ice. And after Seattle endured a month of unhealthy air quality due to wildfires last summer, this year the city announced that it would open “clean air shelters” when the fires start again, five buildings kitted out with expensive filters, open to people who don’t have a safe place to, you know, breathe.
If a movie started with that montage of news broadcasts, you’d know what kind of movie it was. It’d cut right to the part with a truck-driving, robot-prosthetized Charlize Theron, and you’d say, “Well, I saw that coming.” Because it is indeed coming. In many ways, it’s already here. As almost every report and scientific article about climate change has foretold, what was once abnormal has become normal. Or rather, if you’re looking for a new normal, you’re not going to find it. There isn’t one. And that’s going to be the hardest part about life on a climate-changed world.
So wait wait wait. One might ask, reasonably, if all the weird weather this summer was, in fact, due to climate change. And sure, a rapid-response team of climate scientists ran the numbers and estimated that the European heat wave was five times as bad as it would have been without human-emitted greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But maybe that’s not the right question. “Who is that useful for? It may be useful in litigation, if you’re interested in how much additional risk has been created by emissions activities,” says Bob Kopp, a climate scientist at Rutgers University and an author on several national and international climate change studies. But as Kopp says, you don’t need formal attribution to confirm the general trend. “It’s not your imagination,” he says.
Yes. This is really happening. Things right now are not how things used to be.
The core concept here is “stationarity.” Formally, that’s the idea that the probability of an event happening in a given time doesn’t itself change over time. Less formally, it means that data on how often something used to happen can tell you how likely it is to happen again. When you hear about 100-year storms or once-in-a-lifetime heat waves, those frequency estimates assume stationarity. But when it comes to climate, researchers no longer expect it—not in the watery stuff like rain and floods, nor the fiery stuff like, er, fires. Increasingly, the scientists who study emerging infectious diseases, crop survival, air pollution, sea level rise, and extreme heat all warn that past performance may no longer be indicative of future results.
Seattle’s construction of clean-air shelters is an example of planning for the future with past performance in mind. The city saw what happened last summer and is acting accordingly. In a way, the same goes for the entire system of Mississippi River levees, constructed in response to more than a century of river dynamics and the needs of transport on the water. Both are examples of adaptation, a technological remaking of the built environment that humans undertake after making specific assumptions about the future. “But the question is, what are you adapting to? What is normal? Normal keeps changing,” Kopp says. “If you want to even just do the adaptation correctly, you have to recognize that you’re adapting to a baseline that’s changing. And it’s not just a step change. Changes will keep happening.”
It’s not a “new normal,” then. If anything, it’s a “new abnormal.” Any one of the half-dozen weirdo disaster weather scenarios this summer might stand out. But all of them at once? Perhaps that’s just the new face of summer. “I also saw some of the same sentiment expressed last summer. And I forget what they were now—a whole bunch of events like this, storms, floods, heat waves,” says Frances Moore, an environmental scientist at UC Davis who earlier this year published a paper on how quickly people forget what’s normal about changes in weather patterns. Broadly, the effect is called “shifting baseline syndrome,” and it’s what happens when gradual, long-term change meets the dumb, immediately gratifiable human brain. “The shifting baselines come in as we keep seeing these strange summers again and again and again,” Moore says. “We start to think, even if each individual event is unusual, having a set of events around the world, all unusual, itself becomes normalized.”
A shifting baseline can actually be good news for inspiring adaptation, for doing things that help keep people safe in a changed world. After a catastrophic heat wave in 2003, France retrained its emergency personnel and set up systems in case it ever happened again. In June, it did. And France was, roughly, ready. The same goes for Seattle’s clean-air shelters, even if on paper they sound like the kind of dystopian sci-fi where everyone who lives under the dome gets killed when they turn 25 years old. But good adaptation by itself also requires, in a sense, acceptance. “We talk about adaptation as a great thing. It’s better than nothing, but it’s also a second-best solution,” Moore says. “Ideally what we would be doing is solving this collective-action problem, but the city of Seattle alone can’t do that.”
Adaptation is better than not adapting, whether you can get your feet underneath you while the baseline shifts. But mitigation—getting carbon out of the economy—is also, in a sense, adaptation. It attempts to preserve stationarity, and helps ensure all the planning isn’t for nothing. Watching crazy weather unfold around the world this summer so that people can be ready for it next summer is only prudent—build more shade, plant more trees, strengthen levees and build better water management strategies. Sure. Let disasters motivate tangible adaptation, even though everyone who bothered to look knew they were coming a decade ago. “But ‘wait to see what climate change does and then react’ was always going to be a losing strategy,” Moore says. “By the time you see events serious enough to make you take measures, you’re too late to avoid the impact.”
It’s not too late—not yet, anyway. But the clock is ticking louder and louder. And as this summer—and last summer, and the one before that—show, it ain’t too early, either.
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