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Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Getty Images photos: David McNew and George Rose

Climate scientists are increasingly able to use computer models to determine how climate change makes some extreme weather more likely.

Why it matters: Climate change's effects are arguably felt most directly through extreme events. Being able to directly attribute the role climate plays in natural catastrophes can help us better prepare for disasters to come, while driving home the need to tackle greenhouse gas emissions.

Driving the news: The wildfires currently tormenting the West Coast are historic, but they're also part of a measurable surge in fires in recent years.

  • Compared to the 1980s, the acreage burned in Western states annually between 2010 and 2019 has more than doubled, according to analysis of government data by Climate Central, a climate science nonprofit.
  • Climate change clearly plays a driving role. Research has found that roughly half of the acreage burned since the mid-1980s can be attributed to warming temperatures caused by climate change, notes Matthew Hurteau, an ecologist at the University of New Mexico.

The backstory: It was long the case that scientists were hesitant to link any single event to climate change.

  • That's begun to change in recent years as computational power has fallen in price, allowing scientists to run climate models that compare what actually happens in our warming world to a hypothetical planet where climate change never occurred.
  • By comparing those models, scientists can determine how much climate change has loaded the dice to make an extreme event more likely.

A newer attribution research method, known as the storyline approach, works more like an autopsy, determining the causes of an extreme event like a storm and indicating whether climate change was one of those causes.

  • A study published in January used a storyline approach to examine Hurricane Florence, which struck the Carolinas in 2018, finding that the storm was over five miles wider because of climate change, with rainfall amounts increased by nearly five inches.
It would be a myth for us to say that climate change isn't playing a role in increasing the frequency of some of these billion-dollar disasters.
— Adam Smith, applied climatologist, NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information

The bottom line: Climate science has always been future focused, but attribution research allows scientists to see precisely how climate change is hurting us here and now.

Go deeper

Amy Harder, author of Generate
Oct 30, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Oil group CEO on France blocking LNG deal: "We take great umbrage"

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The CEO of the American Petroleum Institute criticized the French government’s move blocking a $7 billion deal to import U.S. liquefied natural gas over concerns about climate change.

Why it matters: The tension reflects intercontinental division over how aggressively governments and companies should tackle global warming, including the potent greenhouse gas methane that’s the primary component of gas.

Amy Harder, author of Generate
Oct 29, 2020 - Science

Pandemic scrambles Americans' acceptance of science

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The pandemic is throwing a wrench into Americans' understanding of science, which has big implications for climate change.

Driving the news: Recent focus groups in battleground states suggest some voters are more skeptical of scientists in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, while surveys reveal the persistence of a deep partisan divide.

Cuomo adviser: New York is "putting equity at the center" of climate work

In a line that stretched upwards of a mile, over 700 New Yorkers marched across the Brooklyn Bridge on April 18, 2019 to demand Gov. Andrew Cuomo to block the controversial Williams Northeast Supply Enhancement (NESE) Pipeline, which would carry fracked gas through New York Harbor. Photo by Erik McGregor via Getty

The challenges of race, equity and the environment are “intersecting and interconnected," and New York is “putting equity at the center,” Ali Zaidi, New York’s deputy secretary for energy and environment, said at an Axios event on Wednesday.

Why it matters: Low-income communities and communities of color are most at risk from climate change, experts say. Because climate change determines who benefits and suffers from the consequences of greenhouse gases, racial justice has become increasingly critical in the pursuit of environmental justice.