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Top Climate Scientist: ‘I Was Too Optimistic’

james-hansen-080912NASA’s top climate scientist says the projections he made to Congress back in the 1980s about how global temperatures would increase have come true. But he says he missed one important detail: “I failed to fully explore how quickly that average rise would drive an increase in extreme weather.” In other words, the situation is even worse than he predicted.

Hansen and a group of other climate scientists have published a new paper that links the current extremes of weather directly to the overall climate changes. Explaining the paper in the Washington Post, he writes:

Our analysis shows that it is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihoodof extreme weather. … For the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change.

The deadly European heat wave of 2003, the fiery Russian heat wave of 2010 and catastrophic droughts in Texas and Oklahoma last year can each be attributed to climate change. And once the data are gathered in a few weeks’ time, it’s likely that the same will be true for the extremely hot summerthe United States is suffering through right now.

These weather events are not simply an example of what climate change could bring. They are caused by climate change. The odds that natural variability created these extremes are minuscule, vanishingly small.

Drought projections from the National Weather Service for late summer and early fall. The improvement in the Southwest reflects annual summer monsoon rains.

The extremes of temperature – not just unusually hot like this summer, but also unusually cold in various parts of the globe during winter are becoming both more common and more severe.

Extremely hot temperatures covered about 0.1 percent to 0.2 percent of the globe in the base period of our study, from 1951 to 1980. In the last three decades, while the average temperature has slowly risen, the extremes have soared and now cover about 10 percent of the globe.

This is the world we have changed, and now we have to live in it — the world that caused the 2003 heat wave in Europe that killed more than 50,000 people and the 2011 drought in Texas that caused more than $5 billion in damage. Such events, our data show, will become even more frequent and more severe.

Although we’ve already crossed a tipping point, Hansen says there’s still time to stop things from becoming very much worse – if we act now. Over the years, he’s offered a specific prescription for what would make a difference, and he repeats it here in brief:

We can solve the challenge of climate change with a gradually rising fee on carbon collected from fossil-fuel companies, with 100 percent of the money rebated to all legal residents on a per capita basis. This would stimulate innovations and create a robust clean-energy economy with millions of new jobs. It is a simple, honest and effective solution.

But there’s been no indication from Congress or the White House that anyone wants to go near this. Meanwhile, Hansen repeats: “The future is now. And it is hot.”