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UN Links Climate Change and Extreme Weather
A major scientific assessment of global climate science found a much
stronger connection between climate change and extreme weather than ever
For the first time, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report includes a chapter
on extreme weather and climate.
Chapter 11 of the 4,000-page Working Group I Sixth Assessment Report explains the connection
between rising global temperatures and recent extreme weather events such as heat waves, heavy
precipitation, floods, droughts, and storms. Extreme events are increasingly likely and intense because
of fossil fuel emissions warming the planet. The 2018 May–August heat waves and droughts would not have happened without human-induced climate change.
The report does not contain studies published after 31 January of this year, so it does not assess recent
events, including the floods in central Europe and China or wildfires in the Mediterranean and
western United States. But it points out events of several years ago, like the 2018 May–August heat
waves and droughts that swept across the Northern Hemisphere and melted roads, wilted crops, and
killed thousands of people. The events would not have happened without human-induced climate
“Using sports terms, one could say that the atmosphere has been exposed to doping,” said Petteri
Taalas, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), which sponsors the IPCC
report with the United Nations.
The previous IPCC assessment, in 2013, concluded that human influences had been detected in
changes of some climate extremes. Now, that’s an “established fact,” according to the report released 9
Scientific advancements in the past decade made the difference in being able to assess the relationship
between climate change and extreme weather. Researchers have a better physical understanding of
Earth’s processes than ever before. Scientists have better access to different types of climate models
and better data sets. Even a relatively benign sounding improvement—a finer horizontal resolution in
computer models that simulate extreme events—bolstered scientists’ grasp on extreme weather.
The explosive growth in the field of attribution science gave the report’s authors many more studies to
pull from, too. Attribution science started in earnest as recently as 2004, with a breakthrough
study in Nature on a heat wave in Europe. Since then, the field has taken off. Just a week after the end
of a record-breaking heat wave in the western United States, a World Weather Attribution study found
that climate change made the heat wave 150 times more likely and increased peak temperature by 2°C.
Unlike individual studies, the IPCC report combines the results of 14,000 published references to
paint a picture of global change. It found profound and extensive changes to the planet’s extreme
Heat extremes are increasing across more than 80% of the world’s land regions.
Heat extremes are increasing across more than 80% of the world’s land regions. The area of land
affected by droughts has been growing.
The atmosphere has more moisture, and increased precipitation has caused more flash
floods and surface water floods. Weather systems like atmospheric rivers and tropical cyclones now
carry more water. Peak wind speeds in tropical cyclones have increased.
Weather conditions contributing to wildfires are now more probable in some regions, and compound
flooding—when a storm surge couples with extreme rainfall and river flow—has grown more common.
“It is indisputable that human activities have caused and are causing climate change. But what’s new
in this report is that we now have a much more advanced understanding of the connections between
the emissions that were released under the rise in global surface temperature and the change to
weather and the climate that we are seeing around the world,” said Panmao Zhai, cochair of the latest
What the Future Will Bring
The planet has warmed 1.1°C since the 1850s. The IPCC report estimates that global temperatures will
surpass 1.5°C by the 2030s and that we are currently heading toward a 2°C or 3°C warming overall.
In a 2°C warmer world, precipitation and drought events that previously happened once every 10 years
will be approximately twice as likely to occur. For extreme heat, once-in-a-decade events will be 5
times more likely. At 4°C, 50% of all land will be affected by droughts.
The effects would be even more severe for 4°C warming, which is possible if fossil fuel emissions
increase over the next century instead of tapering off. At 4°C warmer, 50% of all land will be affected
by droughts. The frequency of 10-year precipitation events would double, and the occurrence of 50-
year events would triple.
Jonathan London, a researcher at the University of California, Davis, studies the effects of drought on
health and equity in California. He said the drought has far-reaching consequences: Low-income
workers in agricultural or outdoor jobs lose employment when less water is allocated to farms. Home
wells go dry. The state’s Central Valley already has poor air quality, and droughts make it worse as
dust blows off dry fields.
“Every fraction of a degree [of warming] matters for human health,” said Mona Sarfaty, executive
director of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, a coalition of medical societies
representing more than half of all U.S. doctors. “America’s doctors are already seeing the health toll of
Although scientific understanding has made significant progress, researchers aren’t sure how to
determine the likelihood of extreme events that have tremendous societal consequences but are very
unusual—like Hurricane Harvey in the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2017, Tropical Cyclone Idai in Mozambique
in 2019, and bushfires in Australia in 2019–2020. The data for low-probability, high-impact events are
so sparse that the report gave the scientific understanding of these events a “low confidence” rating.
Still, the authors warned that these events would become more likely as the climate enters a new
normal, especially in a 4°C warmer world.
It is “extremely important” that these factors be considered for risk management, said IPCC Working
Group I cochair Valérie Masson-Delmotte. Only half of WMO’s 193 member countries have early-
warning weather systems, an important tool for saving lives and property during extreme events.
“We still have a chance to stop the negative climate trend during the middle of the century,” said
WMO’s Taalas, “especially by limiting the use of fossil fuels and by stopping deforestation