Climate change is no longer a distant concern, discussed only between scientists and environmentalists. Climate change is happening now, and it hurts millions of people and costs billions of dollars every year.
But Earth is an incredibly complex system, and drawing a line from greenhouse gas emissions to natural disasters and their effects on humans is difficult even for scientists, let alone the general public.
Meeting this challenge is the driving force behind “Drought, Flood, Fire” (Cambridge University Press, 2021), by Chris Funk of UC Santa Barbara, which aims to demystify how climate change contributes to disasters. Chaucer’s Books in Santa Barbara will host Funk at an online event on August 24 at 7 p.m.
“The two main goals of the book are to communicate how climate change is really affecting us now, and then to explain why it’s happening,” said Funk, director of the Climate Hazards Center at UCSB. Rather than speaking out on climate change from above, Funk sought to discuss and explain the mechanisms that drive it so that readers can understand the process for themselves.
Funk draws on climate data, economic impact assessments and personal stories to explain the effects of climate change on individuals, communities and entire societies. From 2015 to 21, for example, the amount of Earth’s surface that is unusually hot increased from 8% to 24%, he said. And the costs of extreme events have skyrocketed.
As described in Chapter 1, the amount of weather-related damage has quadrupled since 1980, with estimated costs for 2017 and 2018 totaling $ 653 billion. “We are coming to a point where the true cost of weather and climate risks approaches the cost of tackling climate change itself,” Funk said.
“There is an old-fashioned perception of climate change – still common to some scientists – that climate change will manifest itself as a warming bathtub: a slow, gradual rise in temperatures everywhere at the same time,” Funk said. “But as a climate risk scientist, I know this view is wrong. I know this perception dulls our ability to predict and anticipate extreme events. “
Instead of viewing climate change as a slowly warming tub, Funk likens it to a swing, alternating highs and lows as heat and humidity circulate around the world.
“A common misconception is that global warming is just going to lift that swing up,” he said. “While the latest research shows that the swing swings up and down more violently. “
Rather than targeting climate cynics, Funk directed his book to those interested in understanding the impacts of climate change. “I’ve tried to summarize the most important principles,” he said, “principles that anyone can understand and that really help people appreciate what’s going on.”
For example, warm air can hold more moisture than cooler air, a simple fact with profound implications. This increased capacity goes both ways: it means that the atmosphere can dump more water in humid regions and absorb more moisture in dry regions. As a result, climate change looks different depending on where you live.
The systems that transfer energy around the world behave differently than before. As average temperatures increase overall, this additional energy is not necessarily distributed evenly.
For example, rising temperatures helped create a huge high-pressure dome over the western United States, pushing the jet stream north into Canada, Funk explained. East of this dome, the jet stream can bring arctic air to eastern North America. This may help explain why the American West has been ravaged by droughts and mega-fires as floods and polar eddies hit the Midwest and the East Coast.
“As grim as the whole climate change situation is, it is exciting to work at the Climate Hazards Center,” Funk said of CHC, which supports the work of groups like the US Agency for International Development. By anticipating extreme events, such as droughts, the center facilitates early warnings that help deliver humanitarian aid before circumstances turn dire.
“Our work on famine prevention has taught us that if you are prepared to look at the depressing things in life, you can really help guide interventions that protect lives and livelihoods,” Funk said. “And the same goes for climate change. By taking a close look at the causes of climate extremes and their links to climate change, scientists can help us deal with more droughts, floods and fires.