Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Reflections on the Weather Mayhem of the Summer of 2023: We Told You So, Now What?

By Dennis Baldocchi

Meteorological tower
Image of our oak savanna field site where we are studying how climate and weather affect energy exchange of the ecosystem

As I write this blog, I am sitting in the comfort of the Bay Area, experiencing our mild summer temperatures, due to the marine influence of Karl the Fog. However, much of the Northern Hemisphere is experiencing an unprecedented period of weather extremes this summer. Meteorological records show we experienced the hottest June ever recorded, globally.

In the southwest, Phoenix is experiencing an unprecedent number of consecutive days (30) above 110 F. This heat spell is being accompanied by nighttime temperatures that are hovering near 90 F. Such high maximum and minimum temperatures put physiological stress on people, especially the elderly. As a result, Phoenix, a place with ample air conditioning, has experienced a record number of heat related deaths (over 250).

Extreme temperatures, due to regional heat domes, are also being recorded across the Central Valley of California, Texas and the Gulf States, too. This heat extreme is causing ocean waters across the Gulf of Mexico to exceed 90 F and reach 100 F in the Florida Keys. Such warm waters reduce the ability for oxygen to stay in solution. Hence, massive fish diebacks are being reported along the coast of Texas. Others are recording coral bleaching off the coast of Florida.

This summer heat extremes are not only confined to North America. Tourists across southern Europe (a continent that suffered over 60,000 heat related deaths last summer) are experiencing temperatures over 100 F (37.7 C), in a region that is not as well equipped with air conditioning as the southern US. This is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Figueres, Spain, where my friend and collaborator hails from, is near the sea and Barcelona. It experienced a maximum temperature of 113 F (45.4 C) on July 18. And on July 24, I read Palermo, Italy, another sea-side city, where I taught a short course under pleasant summer temperatures a decade ago, reached 116 F (47 C).

Warmer air holds more moisture` which can also affect extremes in precipitation. In temperate regions of Europe and North American citizens are experiencing massive rainstorms with up to a foot of rainfall over the course of a day. The media has many videos showing autos being swept away with flash floods in Nova Scotia, Vermont, Italy and Pakistan.

Extreme weather events that are happening out of site include massive reduction in the extent of sea ice around Antarctica, melting of the Greenland ice cap, forest fires across hot and droughted boreal forests in Canada and the tundra. The extreme decline in the extent of the Antarctic sea ice is more than five standard deviation below the mean, a so called Five Sigma event; and this is during the southern hemisphere winter.

By now these weather extremes should not be a surprise to us. Factors causing this mayhem in weather are attributed to the record level of atmospheric CO2 (reaching 420 ppm, which is 140 ppm above pre-industrial levels) caused by continual high levels of fossil fuel combustion. It is without debate that the physics and chemistry of increasing CO2 and methane on climate is well established and solid. We have been aware of climate warming from fossil fuel emissions and rising CO2 since the pioneering work of the Swedish chemist, Svante Arrhenius, in 1898. I first became aware of this topic as a graduate student, when I read the 1975 paper of Manabe and Wetherald, circa 1977; Dr. Manabe was a recent co-recipient of the Nobel prize for his pioneering work. These findings and projections were eye-opening and guided the careers of several generations of scientists working on the subject today.

What I find frustrating, having worked on a career that has spanned such environmental and societal issues as acid rain and global warming, is the dichotomy in how science and scientists are treated by society. On one hand, our work is sought and funded by society to understand problems, alert society to them and to try and solve them in a timely and cost-effective manner. On the other hand, if the problem is viewed as an ‘inconvenient truth’, our work is either ignored or repelled with denial, lies and half-truths by policy and decision makers. It seems that it takes an avoidable crisis for our science to become accepted. But, then solutions are more expensive to implement and they need to be implemented at a faster pace.

I find this is the situation where we are today with global warming. If we intend to keep our global mean temperature below 1.5 C global warming, we cannot wait longer to decarbonize the energy system on which our economies depend. And we must find ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere with methods that do not require large amounts of energy to deploy, are scalable and don’t have unintended consequences.

What are we to do? It remains an uphill battle. Climate deniers have started to mobilize and claim that these extreme heat spells are just expected summer conditions. My other worry as I write this blog is that once autumn approaches, and temperatures cool, there will be a collective forgetfulness of what happened this summer. Society will just move on with business as usual. But we shouldn’t. We should use the lessons of this summer to mobilize and start doing something about reducing global warming at scale and at pace.

How did we get here? Some say that the findings of climate scientists were ignored and dismissed for not communicating clearly and well; I remember many dinner parties in the 1980s and being subjected to such criticisms. Yet, I find these arguments bordering on being disingenuous. Over the decades, we have had many able science communicators (James Hanson, Steve Schneider, Michael Mann, Katharine Hayhoe, Al Gore) and the journalistic stories have been covered in the press for decades. What we, scientists, have not been able to do is to compete with is the massive industry of disinformation and miscommunication provided by sections of the mass media, who are adept with advertising, and are funded by the fossil fuel industry and other trolls; read Naomi Oreskes Merchants of Doubt.

So, what are our alternatives? As institutions of higher education, I have always advocated that we should lead by example. UC campuses are starting to modernize our power system and decarbonize it. We also have a soapbox by which to educate students to be informed and engaged citizens about global warming.

Technologically, we have made great progress with electric vehicles, heat pumps and batteries. I am happy to see nearly every day on Twitter reports from colleagues, like Mark Jacobson at Stanford and Dan Kammen at Cal who are working on renewal energy systems, reporting more and more installations of wind and energy systems. Clearly, we need better battery and electrical transmission systems to provide a more robust and smart energy infrastructure. In remote areas, there is promise to provide energy with sets of microgrids based on renewable energy. The bottom line is we must invest more and expand in scale faster.

More work is needed to convince people of the facts and truth about a warmer world with booms and busts in rainfall and its potential to have negative effects on food and water supplies and on stability of economies and political systems. Politicians who promulgate the lie should face political consequences at the ballot box. Hence, it is important to vote and vote for representatives who are not gaslighting the public with lies and half-truths about global warming, who are willing to implement solutions, that in the long run can be cost effective and healthy, as solar and wind energy does not produce the air pollution and warming that fossil fuels do.

As scientists and engaged citizens, it does us no favor to say ‘we told you so’. We need to work hard together to stop and reverse the factors causing this warming, on local and global scales. Because in the end global and regional warming is not a partisan issue. If unabated it can and will have world-wide consequences beyond enduring some hot days in summer. These can include crop failures and food shortages, water shortages, regional conflicts, elevated mortality, and mass migration.

Implementing technical and policy solutions to global warming can produce a better world (clean air and water, healthy forests, seas and people, green jobs, sustainable cities, cheap energy, energy efficiencies). I end by referencing the Joel Pett cartoon where a man complains during a presentation at a climate summit that presents these solutions and comments ‘what if it’s a hoax and we create a better world for nothing?’