Attribution Science Linking Warming to Disasters Is Rapidly Advancing

CLIMATEWIRE | For two decades, scientists have been getting better and faster at investigating the links between individual weather events and climate change. They can now analyze everything from heat waves to hurricanes — and in many cases, they can do it nearly in real time.

In the last few weeks alone, scientists have found that climate change increased the likelihood of catastrophic floods in South Africa and deadly heat in South Asia — events that both occurred this spring.

The field, known as “extreme event attribution,” has been one of the fastest developing areas of climate science since it kicked off in the early 2000s. And it’s still accelerating.

A panel of scientists and other experts, convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, gathered yesterday to discuss the latest advancements in attribution science and the ways it can continue to grow.

It’s a kind of update on the field’s development over the last few years. Six years ago, NASEM published an in-depth report on extreme event attribution, evaluating the state of the science and recommending areas for improvement.

The report described a field that was still young but rapidly advancing. Scientists were still honing and standardizing the methods they used to conduct attribution studies.

“In 2016, extreme event attribution was still something very new,” said Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at Imperial College London and co-lead of the research consortium World Weather Attribution. “One of the reasons for the review was people saying, ‘Is this actually real science?’”

In the years since the last report, the field has matured. Today, there are hundreds of published attribution studies in scientific literature. Scientists have largely standardized their methods, and they can rapidly assess a variety of different kinds of weather events. Attribution studies are widely covered in the media.

In the last few years, scientists have identified a number of events that likely wouldn’t have been possible without the influence of climate change. They’ve also gotten faster at analyzing certain types of events. In some cases, research groups are able to complete an investigation almost immediately after a weather event has occurred.

And the field is continuing to expand.

Scientists are still improving their analyses of some of the most complex kinds of climate events, like wildfires. And they’re starting to link climate change not only to weather events, themselves, but also to the economic damages these events cause (Climatewire, May 18). Only a few studies have attempted this kind of analysis in the last few years, but experts say more are likely to follow.

Experts also say attribution studies are beginning to influence climate policy, climate-related lawsuits and the way the public views the issue of climate change.

In recent years, hundreds of climate-related lawsuits have been filed in the U.S. and around the world. Citizens have sued their governments for failing to protect them from climate change. States have sued fossil fuel companies for their contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions and the ongoing increase in damaging weather events.

“Attribution science comes up in a good number of these cases,” said Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.

While many of these cases have been dismissed over the years, he added, it’s typically not because the science isn’t rigorous enough. It’s more often related to other legal intricacies.

In the future, attribution science is likely to figure more heavily into cases brought by cities, counties and states against fossil fuel companies, seeking compensation for damages caused by sea-level rise or extreme weather events, Burger suggested.

“This is the area where we are most likely to see these questions of extreme event attribution be front and center,” he said. “In cases seeking damages for particular actors’ contributions to climate change.”

With the spotlight brightening on the field of event attribution, panelists had a number of recommendations for the future.

Policymakers are sometimes confused about how they should be incorporating attribution studies into their climate action plans, said Shannon Osaka, a climate journalist at Grist and a former academic researcher who studied the social perception of attribution science. There’s room for more discussion on how, exactly, this field of science can influence climate policy in the future.

Attribution studies may also expand their scope to focus more broadly on climate impacts and damages caused by extreme events. And they could place a greater emphasis on the reasons some communities are more vulnerable than others.

Attribution studies typically focus on the ways climate change has made a weather event more severe or more likely to occur. But it’s important to investigate all the other reasons an event might affect public health and well-being, including social inequalities, and local resilience and adaptation efforts.

These kinds of issues can influence a community’s vulnerability to worsening climate disasters. They can make the outcomes better or worse for certain groups of people.

“In the past few years I think there has been more and more coverage of attribution,” Osaka said. “And sometimes that coverage comes a little bit at the expense of focusing on vulnerability and the way that a meteorological hazard can turn into a disaster through underlying socioeconomic situations.”

It’s important to emphasize to the public that “it’s not just climate change,” she added. “There are also other hazards as well.”

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2022. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.