Scientists are getting better at linking extreme events, such as wildfires, to climate change

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      The largest B.C. city between Kamloops and Prince George has been evacuated because of wildfires.

      As people have fled Williams Lake, a massive fire still rages out of control in the Ashcroft area.

      Ten kilometres north of Princeton, there's another huge wildfire. And 100 Mile House is close to another massive wildfire that's simply called Gustafsen North.

      Then there's the sudden grassfire that grew to 30 hectares in Lake Country, which burned a few homes.

      In total, up to 37,000 British Columbians have been evacuated from their communities.

      Yet in the midst of all of this, there's been very little mention of climate change in national and provincial media reports about these blazes.

      Why is that?

      Last year, a paper published by the World Meteorological Organization addressed this communications gap.

      "While scientists have known for decades that changes in some classes of extreme weather would result from climate change, the science of attributing individual extreme events to global warming has only advanced significantly in recent years to cover a greater number of extremes and achieve a greater speed of scientific analysis," the paper states. "Unfortunately, the communication of this science outside the extreme event research community has, with a few notable exceptions, not fully reflected these advances.

      "The media, politicians and some scientists outside this area of research still often claim that 'we can’t attribute any individual event to climate change'," the paper continues. "This may have been true in the 1990s, but it is no longer the case."

      It's worth noting that one local meteorologist, CBC's Johanna Wagstaffe, has diligently tried to educate the public about the consequences of climate change. But by and large, B.C. media reports about the wildfires have rarely brought up the relationship between rising greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere and the high likelihood of more forest fires, such as those that we're seeing in the Cariboo and Kamloops forest centres.

      The WMO paper blames part of the problem on scientists sticking "to the generic explanation that many of the extreme weather events witnessed in recent years were consistent with projections of climate change". This has occurred even though "the science had moved well beyond this general explanation to specific event attribution".

      Another concern is that people's experience of living through an extreme weather event only has "a small, short-lived effect on what people think about climate change", according to the paper. "If an extreme event was experienced more than three months ago, the effect on an individual’s view on climate change largely disappears (Konisky et al, 2015)." 

      The World Weather Attribution website attempts to provide real-time scientific analysis of the effects of climate change on extreme weather events. Unfortunately, it hasn't yet addressed the issue of the B.C. wildfires.

      However, in response to a deadly wildfire last month in Portugal and forest-fire initiated evacuations in Spain, it issued the following statement: "Climate change made the intensity and frequency of such extreme heat at least twice as likely in Belgium, at least four times as likely in France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and central England and at least 10 times as likely in Portugal and Spain."

      That's a pretty convincing way of summing up why the fires were so intense on the Iberian peninsula.

      Meanwhile, the WMO paper offered seven tips to scientists to communicate the role of climate change in extreme events:

      1. Lead with what is known rather than beginning with all the caveats.

      2. Cite mechanisms that are brought on by warming.

      3. Use metaphers to show how human-induced factors change the odds. "For example, 'heat-trapping gases act like steroids in the climate system, increasing the odds of extreme heat, heavy downpours, and some other types of extreme events. We’re now experiencing the weather on steroids.' This communicates that even though extreme events do occur naturally, many types are now happening more frequently and more intensely. Similarly, global warming 'is loading the dice toward more rolls of extreme events,' or 'is stacking the deck' in favor of such outcomes."

      4. Reiterate that climate change is occurring and it's human-caused, even if it can't be attributed to a particular event.

      5. Reframe responses to poorly worded yes-or-no questions from journalists.

      6. Speak about "high confidence" and "low confidence" factors behind events rather than using the word "uncertainty", which is interpreted by the public as scientists simply not knowing.

      7. Avoid language that leads to despair, which results in no action being taken. "For example, rather than calling further increases in extreme weather 'inevitable,' we can discuss the choice we face between a future with more climate change and larger increases in extreme weather, and one with less. The future is in our hands."

      The Union of Concerned Scientists has been raising the alarm about climate change and wildfires for years. Here's a portion of what it says on its website:

      "Wildfires in the western United States have been increasing in frequency and duration since the mid-1980s, occurring nearly four times more often, burning more than six times the land area, and lasting almost five times as long (comparisons are between 1970-1986 and 1986-2003).

      "Natural cycles, human activities—such as land-use (clearing, development, mining) and fire exclusion—as well as climate change can influence the likelihood of wildfires. However, many of the areas that have seen these increases—such as Yosemite National Park  and the Northern Rockies—are protected from or relatively unaffected by human land-use and behaviors. This suggests that climate change is a major factor driving the increase in wildfires."

      A special thanks goes to transportation planner Eric Doherty for drawing my attention to the World Meteorological Organization paper.

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