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Extreme heat and flooding worldwide reflect the magnitude of the climate crisis

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The world is a flashing display of unpredictable extremes right now, with heat waves and floods hitting countries around the globe. Phoenix and Las Vegas are forecast to reach 115 degrees this week, while across the Atlantic, cities like Rome and Madrid are also baking under triple-digit temperatures. Elsewhere, India and South Korea have endured torrential rain and flooding. And in the northeastern U.S., Vermont just got two months of rain in just two days. We know that climate change is making many extreme weather events more likely. And here to talk more about that is Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Welcome.

CHRIS FIELD: Thanks, Ailsa.

CHANG: So at this moment, we're seeing these huge flooding events, but we're also seeing extreme heat. Can you just talk about, like, how does climate change make all these simultaneous events more likely?

FIELD: Climate change is a strong driver of heat waves. When we have a chance to look in detail at individual heat waves and ask whether or not climate change has increased the probability of that kind of event, we see the signal of climate change increasing the odds at least 95% of the time.

CHANG: Wow.

FIELD: Climate change is also an important driver of the heaviest precipitation events. We know that a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture and an atmosphere that holds more moisture can dump more. And a large fraction of the heaviest rainfall events also have their odds increased by the climate change that's already occurred.

CHANG: And the extremists of the weather events that we're seeing right now, are they along the lines of what climate models have been predicting for quite some time now?

FIELD: They are. And we can be unfortunately confident that until we get climate change under control, we're going to be seeing more and more of these.

CHANG: OK. So to be more specific, what would you say is in store for us during summers, say five, 10, 20 years from now?

FIELD: It's important for people to understand that this is not a new equilibrium in climate, that we are continuing to warm as long as we continue to release heat-trapping pollution, and that as it gets warmer, we will see an increasing number of these extreme events. And we can expect these to continue to increase in severity and frequency as long as the warming increases. Even when we bring the emissions of the heat-trapping pollutants down to zero, that will stabilize the temperature and we can expect the trend in the extremes to stabilize. But what we really need to do eventually is bring the temperature back down if we want to decrease the exposure to these extreme temperatures and heavy precipitation events.

CHANG: OK. So to bring the temperature back down, to actually go in reverse so that this is not the new normal and the new normal keeps getting worse and worse, what do we need to do now besides just stop burning fossil fuels?

FIELD: The first step to cooling the climate is to stop burning fossil fuels and to decrease other sources of emissions, including emissions from agriculture, manufacturing, all the sources of greenhouse gases. After that, we need to start working on removing the accumulated greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We can do that through a wide variety of technologies. The best and the safest ones are growing more forests, taking better care of our agricultural and grassland soils. The process isn't going to be quick and it's not going to be simple. And nature can't provide everything we need. But it's important that we start making investments in carbon dioxide removal at the same time we're working hard on decreasing emissions.

CHANG: I feel like we ask this question to every climate expert in this moment that we're in, and that is, how optimistic are you that there is the will and the money to adapt quickly enough?

FIELD: There's no question that we have the technology and that the technology's affordable. There's no question that we've seen meaningful progress in many countries around the world, including in the United States. But there's also no question that we're going much more slowly than we should be. Personally, I hope that the kinds of damaging extremes that we've seen in the last few weeks and are likely to see in the future really will be ringing an alarm bell that will mobilize the kind of resources that we need to deploy to deliver the solutions that are within our grasp.

CHANG: That is Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Thank you so much for joining us.

FIELD: I enjoyed talking with you. Thank you for the opportunity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.