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Climate Change Fueling Extreme Weather Events, Government Study Finds

As Floods Devastate The Midwest, Report Warns Of More Intense Rains And Other Extremes As Climate Changes

WASHINGTON, June 19, 2008 – Climate change is altering the frequency and severity of many extreme weather events, such as floods, droughts and hurricanes, according to a government report issued today.  In the wake of devastating flooding throughout the Midwest – for which President Bush is seeking nearly $2 billion in emergency aid – the report illustrates the nation’s economic vulnerability to climate change and reinforces the urgency of developing a national preparedness strategy for climate change impacts, said a senior World Wildlife Fund (WWF) official.

The report, Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate – Regions of Focus: North America, Hawaii, Caribbean, and U.S. Pacific Islands, which was issued by the government’s Climate Change Science Program (CCSP), is the first to specifically assess observed and projected changes in weather and climate extremes for North America.  It states that the greatest impacts of climate change on society and wildlife will be experienced through changes in extreme weather events as global temperatures increase. 

Dr. Richard Moss, WWF’s vice president for climate change, who previously headed up the CCSP coordination office under both the Clinton and Bush administrations, said today’s report illustrates the nation’s economic vulnerability to climate change and reinforces the need to implement a national preparedness strategy. 

“As this report shows, climate change is directly affecting each and every one of us and threatens significant physical and economic harm,” said Moss.  “While no single storm can be directly attributed to climate change, the scientific evidence clearly shows that as the climate warms, extreme weather events will become more intense and more frequent. 

“To fully grasp the ramifications of the surge in extreme droughts and floods that is forecast in this report, one need only look at the widespread devastation across the Midwest.  Levees are being breached, tens of thousands of residents have been displaced, and the President is asking Congress for $1.8 billion in emergency aid to help the region recover – that is roughly the entire annual federal budget for climate change research programs.  Simply put, climate change is a problem we cannot afford to ignore.”

Moss added, “We need to start making substantial reductions in emissions to minimize how much and how quickly the climate changes, and, just as importantly, we need to begin a serious program of national preparedness to respond to these increasing threats.”

According to the report, significant changes in extreme weather events have been observed throughout the U.S.  It states:

Many extremes and their associated impacts are now changing. For example, in recent decades most of North America has been experiencing more unusually hot days and nights, fewer unusually cold days and nights, and fewer frost days. Heavy downpours have become more frequent and intense. Droughts are becoming more severe in some regions.... The power and frequency of Atlantic hurricanes have increased substantially in recent decades, though North American mainland land-falling hurricanes do not appear to have increased over the past century. Outside the tropics, storm tracks are shifting northward and the strongest storms are becoming even stronger.

The report further states that the extremes will continue to shift as global temperatures increase:

In the future, with continued global warming, heat waves and heavy downpours are very likely to further increase in frequency and intensity. Substantial areas of North America are likely to have more frequent droughts of greater severity. Hurricane wind speeds, rainfall intensity, and storm surge levels are likely to increase. The strongest cold season storms are likely to become more frequent, with stronger winds and more extreme wave heights.

While acknowledging that extremes “can have positive or negative effects,” the report warns that “on balance, because systems have adapted to their historical range of extremes, the majority of the impacts of events outside this range are expected to be negative.”

Another government report, being released tomorrow, reviews adaptation options for sensitive ecosystems and resources on federal lands, including national parks and national marine sanctuaries. A draft of that report states that “we may be seeing a tipping point in terms of the need to plan and take appropriate action on climate adaptation.”

“These reports should be a thunderous wakeup call to policy makers,” said Moss.  “The costs of unmitigated climate change – whether counted in dollars or human well-being – are too great to ignore.  We must start addressing this problem with the seriousness and urgency it warrants and move swiftly to reduce emissions and develop and implement preparedness measures.  We must also engage in a serious manner with other world governments to negotiate a new global climate treaty that is expected to be signed in Copenhagen in December 2009.”