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Attributing Extreme Weather Events to Climate Change: Practices, Perceptions and Policies


Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences

About the Project

“Climate change means more extreme weather” is a common headline. The potential and serious effects of anthropogenic climate change are often communicated through this soundbite. It has become a popular shorthand with scientists and the media to get the public and governments to act against further increases in global temperature and their associated effects through the communication of scary scenarios, what we term "atmosfear." How effective such communication strategies are to motivate climate action are not known.

Moreover, this soundbite belies many studies about what is actually happening and what will happen in a warmer climate. Indeed, some types of extreme weather will become more common in the future in many parts of the world, but other types of extreme weather will become less common in other parts of the world. And, this statement does not address the intensity of the extreme weather, a separate measure to frequency. There’s no guarantee that both frequency and intensity will increase. For example, tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic are projected to become more intense, but less frequent, in our warmer future.

Furthermore, our confidence in making projections about the frequency and intensity of extreme weather varies by the type of extreme weather. The IPCC and the U.S. National Academies have concluded with high confidence that the frequency and intensity of heat waves increasing in many regions of the globe will increase in the future, but they have low confidence in how hailstorms or tornadoes will change in the future. Such nuances are often not communicated effectively through the soundbite.

Scientists are now able to connect extreme weather events with climate change using a method called “extreme event attribution”. It has been suggested that attribution could help in assessing loss and damage from climate change, determining liability, and informing decision making on adaptation. It has also been promised as a panacea for communications, connecting the abstract risks of climate change to real-world, on-the-ground events. However, attribution remains an emerging science, and attribution studies of the same event can sometimes produce divergent answers due to particular methodology used, variables examined, and the timescale selected. Even beyond the science itself, what the results of attribution mean to the public and to stakeholders remains an open question. How is such information used? How are cases for attribution selected?

This PhD research project will take a broad, interdisciplinary, and critical look at climate change, extreme weather, and extreme event attribution. We are looking for students who want to be challenged, want to work in an interdisciplinary setting, and enjoy studying the natural world. Your background can be in environmental social science, geography, atmospheric or climate science, physics, mathematics, statistics, economics, psychology, sociology, political science, computer science, or a related field.

The student has much say in the direction of this project. Potential research projects could answer the following questions.

• How will extreme weather change in the future?
• How do these changes vary for different types of extreme weather?
• How will we know when extreme weather has changed enough so that we can pin the blame on climate change?
• How are these changes determined and attributed to climate change?
• How have scientists employed attribution to study extreme weather events?
• How are changes in extreme weather events communicated to stakeholders, the public, and policymakers?
• How is this information used (or could be used) to reduce the impacts of climate change on society?
• Does attribution help determine liability in court cases?
• Is it useful in making adaptation decisions?
• Does it connect weather to climate change in the public imagination?
• Does it lead to changes in perception and/or behaviour?

Funding Notes

Application enquiries to: Prof. David Schultz,
Dr. Rob Bellamy,

References

Osaka, S., and R. Bellamy, 2020: Weather in the Anthropocene: Extreme event attribution and a modelled nature–culture divide. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, in press.
Osaka, S., and R. Bellamy, 2020: Natural variability or climate change? Stakeholder and citizen perceptions of extreme event attribution. Global Environmental Change, 62, 102070, doi: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2020.102070.
Janković, V., and D. M. Schultz, 2017: Atmosfear: Communicating the effects of climate change on extreme weather. Weather, Climate, and Society, 9, 27–37, doi: 10.1175/WCAS-D-16-0030.1.
Schultz, D. M., and V. Janković, 2014: Climate change and resilience to weather events. Weather, Climate, and Society, 6, 157–159.

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