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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

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
Dec 19, 2020 - Energy & Environment

"The Ministry for the Future": How to solve the climate crisis

Photo: Hachette Book Group

A recent novel illustrates the likely consequences of climate change in the decades to come, and offers hope that better technology and politics might help us save the future.

Why it matters: Perhaps no subject as important as climate change has also proven so difficult to effectively and accurately dramatize. "The Ministry for the Future" is the one novel I've read that captures the consequences of warming while offering a realistic blueprint for how we can stop it.

Amy Harder, author of Generate
Dec 18, 2020 - Energy & Environment

How to judge America’s climate-change responsibility

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Historically, America has emitted the most greenhouse gases of any country in the world. But over the next 80 years, the U.S. may account for as little as 5% of such emissions.

Why it matters: Installing technologies to address climate change will, therefore, be most critical in places other than America where emissions’ growth is expected to be higher, according to physicist Varun Sivaram.

Trump impeachment trial to start week of Feb. 8, Schumer says

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Photo: The Washington Post via Getty

The Senate will begin former President Trump's impeachment trial the week of Feb. 8, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced Friday on the Senate floor.

The state of play: The Senate majority leader announced the schedule after reaching an agreement with Republicans. The House will transmit the article of impeachment against the former president late Monday.