(Un)Natural Disasters: Communicating Linkages Between Extreme Events and Climate Change

The science of attributing extreme weather and climate events has progressed in recent years to enable an analysis of the role of human causes while an event is still in the media. However, there is still widespread confusion about the linkages between human-induced climate change and extreme weather, not only among the public, but also among some meteorologists and others in the scientific community. This is an issue of communication as well as of science. Many people have received the erroneous message that individual extreme weather events cannot be linked to human-induced climate change, while others attribute some weather events to climate change where there is no clear evidence of linkages. In order to advise adaptation planning and mitigation options, there is a need to communicate more effectively what the most up-to-date science says about event attribution, and to include appropriate information on linkages when reporting extreme weather and climate events in the media. This article reviews these issues, advancements in event attribution science, and offers suggestions for improvement in communication.

The weather seems to be getting wilder and weirder. People are noticing. What are the connections to human-caused climate change? And how can we best communicate what the most recent science is telling us about human-induced and natural changes to weather and climate?

When heavy rains led to devastating floods in the United Kingdom (UK) in January 2014, the then Prime Minister David Cameron stated that he “very much suspects” the floods were linked to climate change. A scientific analysis had concluded that climate change had increased the chances of the rainfall that caused the flooding by an estimated 43%  (Schaller et al, 2016). The fact is that warmer air holds more moisture, which generally leads to heavier rainfall. The potential for damage from such extreme events is also increasing, as higher river levels put more properties at risk from flooding; the 2014 UK floods cost US$ 646 million (£451 million) in insurance losses, one of the highest in history (Schaller et al, 2016).

In Australia, the summer of 2013 was the hottest on record. The sustained high temperatures were linked to bushfires in the country’s southeast and severe flooding in its northeast. Conditions were so severe it was dubbed “the angry summer” (Steffen, 2013). According to a scientific analysis, the record heat that summer was made at least five times more likely – a 500% increase in the odds of it occurring – by human-caused warming. This conclusion, using the observed temperature record and climate models, was made with more than 90% confidence (Lewis and Karoly, 2013).

The 2014 UK flooding and 2013 Australian heat wave are just two recent extreme events that scientists have determined were considerably more likely to occur due to human-caused climate change. Such heat waves and heavy downpours are among the classes of extreme events that tend to be more frequent and/or more severe in a warmer world. 

But not all extremes are increasing. For example, there has been an overall decrease in the number of very cold days and nights, as would be expected in a warming world. Still, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 2012 report on extremes wrote: “A changing climate leads to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration, and timing of extreme weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events” (Field et al, 2012). Nonetheless, scientific findings that specific extreme weather and climate events can, in fact, be attributed to human-caused climate change have not been widely reflected in public understanding.

Flooding in Oxfordshire, 2014Flooding hits a town in Oxfordshire, United Kingdom, during the widespread floods of early 2014

Lost in translation

While scientists have known for decades that changes in some classes of extreme weather would result from climate change, the science of attributing individual extreme events to global warming has only advanced significantly in recent years to cover a greater number of extremes and achieve a greater speed of scientific analysis. Unfortunately, the communication of this science outside the extreme event research community has, with a few notable exceptions, not fully reflected these advances. The media, politicians and some scientists outside this area of research still often claim that “we can’t attribute any individual event to climate change.” This may have been true in the 1990s, but it is no longer the case.

Part of the problem is that for a long time many scientists themselves repeated this message. They stuck to the generic explanation that many of the extreme weather events witnessed in recent years were consistent with projections of climate change, although the science had moved well beyond this general explanation to specific event attribution. However, there are some cases in which scientists can say more about attributing the underlying factors behind an extreme event than about the specifics of the event itself. This complexity can create confusion and lead to missed communication opportunities. Hence, it is not surprising that it is taking a while for public awareness to catch up with the science.

Another issue for communication is that the response of the climate system to warming includes intensifying the water cycle, leading, for example, to both more droughts and more floods. If the mechanisms by which this occurs – that is higher air temperatures dry out soils, and a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture leading to heavier precipitation – are not explained to non-scientists, the combination of both wetter and drier conditions can seem counter-intuitive.

Furthermore, the causes of specific extremes can be seen as politically charged in some countries where, unfortunately, climate change has become a partisan issue. For example, in the aftermath of an extreme event, such as a fire or flood, some people may see it as insensitive and/or political to discuss human-induced causes of loss of life or property. 

A changing climate leads to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration, and timing of extreme weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events. — IPCC

The need for better communication

Why is it important to better communicate the linkages between extreme events and climate change? The scientific attribution of specific extreme events has become a research avenue with important benefits to society. Both under-attribution or over-attribution could lead to poor adaptive decision-making, jeopardizing infrastructure, human health and more. Being able to rapidly analyse the attribution of extreme weather and climate events and comment while an event is still in the media is a significant scientific and communication advance, which has the potential to reduce future vulnerability to extremes. Such an assessment of risk requires a scientific basis, rather than an opinion based on personal perceptions, media reporting, or in response to political discourse.

Recent research suggests that personal experience of extreme weather has only a small, short-lived effect on what people think about climate change. If an extreme event was experienced more than three months ago, the effect on an individual’s view on climate change largely disappears (Konisky et al, 2015). People do not necessarily make the connections that have been shown by scientific analysis to exist between extreme weather and climate change. If they had help connecting the dots – that is, if scientific linkages were clearly articulated and reported more often and more accurately in the media – perhaps the effect of extreme weather on peoples’ views would be greater, leading to better planning to adapt to changes, improved behavioural change, and more action on climate change.

Los Angeles TimesFailure to connect the dots: This wildfire coverage is devoid of any mention of a climate change linkage. This is particularly ironic as it appears alongside an article about climate policy.

Media reporting of climate change and extremes

Even as occurrences of certain classes of extreme events have increased, the media in some countries have not kept pace in communicating the scientific understanding of the connection between climate change and extremes.

For example, in the United States of America (U.S.), an August 2015 study by Media Matters for America (MMA) showed that top newspapers ran coverage of wildfires and of the U.S. Clean Power Plan side-by-side (see image above), but failed to mention the role of human-induced climate change in an unseasonably early wildfire season (MMA, August 2015). While calling the wildfires “the new normal,” major California newspapers neglected to give any explanation of the cause of this new normal (e.g., Westerling et al, 2006). Similarly, in June 2016 MMA noted a reversal of progress in attributing extreme events to climate change when media failed to portray links between climate change and the May-June floods in Texas. They noted that major U.S. broadcast news networks ignored climate change in their coverage of the flooding, marking a deterioration in coverage of the linkages since 2015 when networks covered the science connecting climate change to the May 2015 Texas floods (MMA, June 2016).

When the media does cover climate change impacts, the focus is overwhelmingly on extreme weather events. A study of network television coverage in the U.S. in 2015 revealed that coverage of extreme events outpaced all other climate change impacts, including those to public health and the economy (MMA, March 2016). In June 2015, as powerful floods struck Texas, some media stepped up their coverage of the link between heavy rainfall and climate change (MMA, June 2015).  While not as widespread as they should be, there have been other examples of good media coverage of the linkages between extreme weather and climate change. However, there is still room for improvement when it comes to media coverage of extreme weather events as the most visible impacts of climate change.

In terms of understanding the linkages between extreme weather and human-induced climate change, the public also tends to be swayed by the views of prominent leaders, even when those views are at odds with the science. For example, an analysis of the record-breaking spring high temperatures that occurred in Australia in 2013 and 2014 showed that the human influence on climate made those record high temperatures substantially more probable (Lewis and Karoly, 2014). Another analysis found that these extreme temperatures were very unlikely to have occurred in the absence of human-caused climate change (Gallant and Lewis, 2016). However, public statements from a prominent leader contradicted these analyses, promoting the view that natural variations and the lengthening period of record could account for the recent heat extremes. Although these views could not be reconciled with the science, they were widely reported and have persisted in public understanding of extreme events.

There is a clear opportunity for the media to discuss the most visible impacts of climate change in their coverage of weather disasters, though it is an opportunity that is missed far too often.

Evolving science

The science of attributing individual extreme weather events to climate change dates back to a 2003 commentary in Nature in which climate researcher Myles Allen raised the question of liability for damages from extreme events that may have been influenced by human-induced climate change (Allen, 2003). This was soon followed by a 2004 research study by Peter Stott and colleagues that examined the 2003 European heat wave associated with more than 35 000 deaths and found that climate change had more than doubled the risk of such extreme heat – the best estimate is that it made it four times more likely (Stott et al, 2004). These early studies laid the foundations of the techniques for using climate models to analyse the linkages between extreme weather events and human-induced climate change.

Many subsequent studies attributing extreme weather and climate events use a probabilistic approach to determine and communicate the Fraction of Attributable Risk (Stone and Allen, 2005). This approach is widely used in health and population studies to quantify the contribution of a risk factor to the occurrence of a disease – for example, how much smoking increases the risk of lung cancer. Similarly, evaluating how much climate change alters the probabilities of certain classes of extreme weather events is central to the science of extreme event attribution. Scientists calculate the probability of an extreme weather event occurring in climate model experiments incorporating both human and natural factors; they then compare these probabilities to a parallel set of experiments that include only natural factors. In this way, natural and human climate influences can be separated to determine how much the risk of a particular event changed due to the human influence on climate.

The level of scientific confidence in an attribution result, and the uncertainty around the link between climate change and certain classes of extreme events, depends on several factors. First, scientists require a robust physical understanding of the mechanisms behind a category of events such as heatwaves, floods, hurricanes, or droughts. Next, scientists require high-quality observations so they can determine if the occurrence of this type of event is changing in the observational record. Finally, climate models must be able to accurately simulate and reproduce the relevant class of extreme event.

In several studies, these three factors have aligned and attribution statements have had a high level of confidence. For example, there is great clarity and confidence in attributing heat events that occur over large areas and extended time periods. The physics are well understood, changes are documented in observations, and they are simulated accurately in climate models. For example, in Australia, 2013 was a year of heat extremes with the hottest day, week, month, summer and year on record. Two separate studies found that the 2013 extreme heat in Australia would have been virtually impossible without human-caused climate change (Knutson et al, 2014; Lewis and Karoly, 2014).

Individual precipitation events present a different set of challenges than temperature extremes. Scientists are confident in the high-level understanding that human-caused intensification of the hydrologic cycle can generally lead both to more floods and more droughts. By increasing the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere, human-induced warming has increased the amount of rain falling in heavy downpours, which can lead to flooding. So there is confidence in both the mechanism and the observed trends, and this indicates a linkage to climate change even in the absence of a formal, model-based attribution study. However, for those relying on such modelling studies, high confidence in attribution of specific events requires that models simulate such processes correctly at small spatial scales, and this can be challenging. Furthermore, in addition to occurring more often in a warmer world, these events often have other mechanisms at work, weather conditions such as blocking high-pressure systems and sea surface temperature patterns (e.g., Dole et al, 2011). While attribution studies have found a human signal in some recent extreme flooding events (Pall et al, 2011; Schaller et al, 2016), the signal is smaller and often less clear than for temperatures as a result of modelling challenges and complex climate mechanisms.

Two separate studies found that the 2013 extreme heat in Australia would have been virtually impossible without human-caused climate change. 

Scientific extreme event attribution studies typically focus on quantifying risks and likelihoods. It is also true that extreme weather events now occur within a climate system where the background conditions have changed. As such, no weather is entirely “natural” anymore, but rather occurs in the context of a changed climate. That is, “Global warming is contributing to an increased incidence of extreme weather because the environment in which all storms form has changed from human activities” (Trenberth, 2011, USA Today). Every event has been influenced by climate change to some extent through increases in heat, atmospheric moisture and sea level, which all influence how extreme events play out (Trenberth et al, 2015). A more detailed understanding of what the human-induced signal means for the risks of specific extreme events may enable us to more effectively advise decision-making.

In addition, all extremes are occurring in a naturally variable and chaotic climate system. Extreme events are always a result of natural variability and human-induced climate change, which cannot be entirely disentangled. Scientific attribution approaches focused on extremes of heat, drought, flooding, rainfall or storms aim to provide a meaningful understanding of the relative natural and human influences on an extreme event. Hence, each observed extreme event must be considered explicitly in order to provide the most useful information. Similarly, the failure to attribute an event to human causes with a high level of confidence does not negate or challenge the broader understanding of human-caused climate change. Attribution results that are clear and have a high level of confidence in a substantial human cause, or alternatively demonstrate a strong element of natural climate variability, can be equally useful for providing information for planning in a warmer world. 

The latest evolution in attribution science is to analyse extreme events in near-real time. The World Weather Attribution project and a similar effort in Europe (EUCLIEA; Stott, 2016) are international efforts to sharpen and accelerate our ability to analyse and communicate the influence of climate change on extreme weather events. The World Weather Attribution project analysed the major flooding in France and nearby countries in June 2016 that closed the Louvre museum, forced the evacuation of thousands, left tens of thousands without power, killed more than a dozen people, and caused damages estimated at over a billion Euros in France alone. The researchers found that the probability of 3-day extreme rainfall in this season has increased by about 80% on the Seine and about 90% on the Loire (World Weather Attribution, 2016).

Improving communication

The suggestions below for more effective communication are based on many years of experience communicating climate science and the links between climate change and extreme weather. When interacting with the media following an extreme event, these suggestions may help scientists to more effectively and accurately communicate the role of climate change in influencing the event.

  1. Lead with what is known. Rather than starting with caveats, uncertainties, and what we cannot say (Somerville and Hassol, 2011), a discussion of attribution of extreme weather should begin with how human-induced climate change is affecting the type of extreme weather at issue. For example, “We know that in a warming world, we experience more frequent and severe heat waves. And we see that trend clearly in the data. This event is part of that trend.” Then discuss any studies relating to the specific extreme weather event being discussed, such as those that quantify the altered chances of the event when this information is available from research. For example, “Global warming made this heat wave at least four times more likely to occur, or increased the odds of this event by 400%.”
  2. Communicate clearly and simply the mechanisms behind the changes brought on by warming. For example, “A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, leading to heavier rainfall.”
  3. Use metaphors, which can effectively help explain how human-induced warming changes the odds of extreme weather events. For example, “heat-trapping gases act like steroids in the climate system, increasing the odds of extreme heat, heavy downpours, and some other types of extreme events. We’re now experiencing the weather on steroids.” This communicates that even though extreme events do occur naturally, many types are now happening more frequently and more intensely. Similarly, global warming “is loading the dice toward more rolls of extreme events,” or “is stacking the deck” in favor of such outcomes.
  4. When discussing extreme weather events that have not been clearly attributed to climate change by scientific analyses, it is useful to reiterate our basic understanding of human-induced climate change and to decouple that from the attribution of a particular event. Explain that, “we know climate change is happening now, and is human-caused, even if we can’t be certain that it is a direct cause of this particular event.”
  5. Reframe poorly posed questions. Scientists being interviewed are often asked, “Did climate change cause this event?” Reasons for asking such a question can relate to liability, context, planning and more. However, it remains a poorly posed question, with no simple yes or no answer, due to the multiple factors involved in all events. Interviewees can reframe their responses to be more appropriate and informative, for example, describing how the probabilities of these types of events are changing as a result of human-induced warming and identifying particular events that are very unlikely to have occurred in the absence of human-caused climate change.
  6. Communicate about confidence and uncertainty in language appropriate for the public. Scientists have a lexicon that can be useful for communicating with each other about these issues, but it is important to remember that many words mean entirely different things to scientists than they do to the public (Hassol, 2008; Somerville and Hassol, 2011). For example, scientists often use the word “uncertainty” to discuss the envelope of future climate scenarios, or the range of model results for a particular attribution finding, but to the public, “uncertainty” means we just don’t know. Thus, referring to “a range” is better than calling it “uncertainty.” Similarly, scientists may describe a finding as being “low confidence” for reasons having to do with data or model issues, but this does not mean there is no observed trend or no projected change as the public might assume from this language.
  7. As with any public communication about climate change, try to avoid language that can lead to despair and hence inaction. For example, rather than calling further increases in extreme weather “inevitable,” we can discuss the choice we face between a future with more climate change and larger increases in extreme weather, and one with less. The future is in our hands.

A community responsibility

Changes in extreme weather and climate events are the primary way that most people experience climate change. Human-induced global warming has already increased the number and strength of some extreme events (Melillo et al., 2014). The science in this arena is rapidly evolving. This makes it imperative that we accurately communicate the scientific linkages between extremes and climate change, so that people can make informed decisions about actions to limit the risks posed by these events.

As part of this rapid evolution in scientific capacity to attribute extremes to their causes, and given the increase in frequency and severity of extremes, some scientists have asked if the burden of proof should shift from having to prove that there is a human effect on a particular weather event, to having to prove that there is no such effect. Since the human influence on climate is well established, and all events take place in that changed environment, they argue that the question should no longer be “is there a human component,” but “what is it?” (e.g., Trenberth, 2011). 

...the choice we face [is] between a future with more climate change and larger increases in extreme weather, and one with less. The future is in our hands.

As climate change progresses, and the science of event attribution evolves, people will continue to ask questions about – and the media will continue to report on – how we are influencing extreme weather and how extreme weather is affecting us. It is the responsibility of the climate and weather science and communication communities to keep up with the evolving science and to work diligently at communicating the latest and best science for the benefit of society.



Susan Joy Hassol, Climate Communication and WMO Commission for Climatology (CCI) Communications Advisor

Simon Torok, Scientell Pty Ltd and CCI Communications Advisor

Sophie Lewis, Australian National University

Patrick Luganda, Network of Climate Journalists in the Greater Horn of Africa and CCl Communications Advisor



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