What’s up with the weather? New England has seen its share of extremes as of late, from the recent winter storm known as Nemo to Hurricane Sandy last fall. The climate is changing. That’s a fact. Figuring out how it is changing, why it is changing and what the consequences of that change will be requires a knack for science, a penchant for cross-disciplinary thinking, and the ability to explain complex subjects to a broad audience.
Enter Andrew Freedman, F10, senior science writer for Climate Central, an online publication dedicated to researching and reporting the fact of the changing climate and its effect on the United States.
All weather is suspicious now, he told students and faculty at a Feb. 14 presentation hosted by the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy (CIERP) at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. And all weather is occurring in a changed climate.
Melding his Fletcher degree with a master’s degree in science from Columbia, Freedman is “a new breed at the intersection of climate science and journalism,” said William Moomaw, professor of international environmental and director of the CIERP. Extreme events such as record heat waves in Texas, record winter temperatures in the Northeast, and record high or low water in the Mississippi are described by experts as representative of “The New Abnormal,” Freedman said.
“Climate change has altered the risk of some extreme events, and has altered the characteristics of some routine ones as well,” Freedman said. “Climate change has significantly increased the likelihood of extreme events.”
Freedman noted that rising global temperatures aren’t necessarily the cause of these extremes, but they are enablers.
“Global warming is an accomplice, not a perpetrator,” he said. “If there’s a crime, global climate change is the getaway car.”
The United States has always been home to some of the most extreme weather in the world. But things are different now, he said: storms are having a greater impact than they used to. Look at Hurricane Irene, which lashed the Caribbean and the Eastern Seaboard—from Florida to Maine— in August 2011. Or more recently, Hurricane Sandy, which devastated New York and New Jersey in October 2012. When you’re a city engineer in New York watching subway entrances and a storm pushes sea levels up, inches matter, he said.
For these reasons, Freedman said, there has been a palpable shift in understanding and perception of climate change in the United States. For example, in 2011, there were 14 “extreme” events that exceeded the billion dollar mark in terms of costs and destruction. That year was a record tornado year as well, which caused people to take notice, he said. And the following year was also attention-grabbing from the perspective of veteran weather watchers and climate reporters.
“As a reporter, 2012 was just ridiculous: there was too much write about, too much to wrap your head around,” he said. “I think the public really moved a lot having seen story after story after story on climate change.”
In Australia, meanwhile, the record-setting heat wave that has pushed temperatures in some parts of the country to 53 degrees Celsius (127 degrees Fahrenheit) has forced meteorologists to adopt a new color on their weather maps, since deep red isn’t sufficient to capture the intensity of the heat.
“Not surprisingly, the Australians are all on board about climate policy now,” he said.
Freedman said the current era of austerity in Washington doesn’t bode well for the scientific agencies that monitor climate change with computer models, satellites and other research. And it’s clear that many politicians, at least in the United States, still don’t consider climate change to be a top priority. President Obama, Freedman noted, made only passing mention of recent extreme weather events, and climate change was virtually nonexistent as an issue during the presidential campaign.
Still, Freedman is hopeful that a growing awareness of the potential consequences of climate change will spur further action by policy makers and individuals alike.
The global climate system is a massively complicated system that scientists are still trying to figure out. But one thing is certain, he said: “you can’t change the underlying system without changing what comes out of that system.”
--Mike Eckel, MALD ’13 Candidate