Climate change feels more real now than ever

Climate change feels more real now than ever.

Three stitched photographs of dramatic climate events from the summer of 2023
David Dee Delgado/Getty; John Tully/The Washington Post/Getty; Ash ponders/Bloomberg/Getty

It is becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of all overlapping climate catastrophes. In Phoenix, Arizona, temperatures have soared to 110 degrees for almost two straight weeks. The waters off Florida’s coast are approaching whirlpool heat, and marine heatwaves could soon blanket half the world’s oceans. In the north, Canada’s worst wildfire season on record continues, continuing to choke American cities with sporadic smoke that may not clear for good until October. In the Northeast, floods have submerged and obliterated cities whole lanes, and left train tracks that hovered eerily 30 meters in the air. Also, the sea ice in Antarctica – which is currently expected to be expanding rapidly because it’s winter down there – could potentially lose mass.

In a way, this accumulation of crises is exactly what climate scientists expected. Simon Lee, an atmospheric scientist at Columbia University, told me global temperatures are rising at about the expected rate, and natural disasters are a consequence of that fact. There will be some volatility from year to year – and this year overall could see slightly worse conditions than the trend lines would predict. The fact is, however, that climate change is at least partly involved in all of these catastrophes. It makes the hot days hotter. This makes rainstorms more intense. It dries up landscapes and prepares them for ignition. “We no longer need to do a specific attribution study” to make such claims, Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist and director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told me. “We’ve been doing this for 20 years now… It’s far from rocket science.”

But when it comes to climate science, what researchers “expect” can be a sketchy concept. “We know the general path we’re on,” NASA climate scientist Alex Ruane told me, but “things don’t always change in nice, gradual ways.” Although the global situation is getting worse at about the same rate , as leading models would predict, more specific, local changes might be surprising. At its core, climate change is a destabilizing force: Think of its effects as predictable and unpredictable. The total area of ​​Antarctic sea ice, for example, is currently more than four standard deviations smaller than the average for this time of year. This is not only a new record since measurements began in the 1970s; that is harrowing the record. Exactly why this has happened now – and whether it will just be a horrible slip-up or a permanent condition – is still an open question. Likewise, scientists do not yet fully understand how climate change is affecting the way weather systems move around the globe. A storm can be diverted from a drought-stricken region to an already soaked city, or a scorching atmosphere can come to a standstill in a single location, as we see with the heat dome that has settled over Phoenix.

Even if these disasters play out exactly as expected, the scientists I spoke to said they’ve noticed changes in the way Americans discuss them. “People don’t talk about climate change in the future tense anymore,” Ruane said. “They talk about climate change in the present tense.” More and more of them have personal stories about climate problems. Disasters are no longer presented as harbingers; They are simply understood as things are. “These aren’t canaries in the coal mine,” Schmidt said. “The canaries died a long time ago.”

Back when he was working The AtlanticMy former colleague Robinson Meyer ended his weekly newsletter with a section entitled “Someone Else’s Weather,” because, as he put it, “The climate is someone else’s weather.” I’ve always taken it to mean that the abstraction that we call climate is a concrete, imminent reality for someone somewhere. It’s the sky above your head, the earth beneath your feet, the feel of the air around you.

The increasing number of catastrophes this year amplify this formulation, but also take it a step further. The heat, the fires, the meltwater, and the floods are all contributing to a growing sense that climate change is happening right here and now—that climate has truly become weather. We’re staying inside because it’s hot. We take a different route to work because the roads are washed out. We’re adjusting our plans for smoke from wildfires the same way we’ve always adjusted for lightning and rain. The climate is increasingly not someone else’s weather. It’s our own.

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