18 January 2013 (New Scientist) – All eyes have been on Australia in recent weeks as a blistering heatwave triggered huge wildfires. The result has been a slew of amazing stories, including a family escaping by jumping into the sea and meteorologists adding new colours to heat maps.
But Australia's fires are just the most dramatic of a cluster of ongoing extreme weather events, including droughts in the US and Brazil and a lethal cold snap in Asia (see "Drought, fire, ice: world is gripped by extreme weather").
Lumping extreme weather events under a single umbrella can be misleading. Al Gore got into trouble when his film An Inconvenient Truth stitched together footage of numerous hurricanes and presented them as "evidence" of climate change.
But in this case it seems there really is a bigger picture. Scientists have warned for years that extreme weather would become more common, and now it is. What's more, although single events can rarely be confidently attributed to climate change, clusters probably can.
Many expected that such weather disasters would be what finally spurs governments into action. Perhaps surprisingly, there are signs that this is happening. A report by GLOBE International - a collective of environmentally concerned parliamentarians, of which Gore was a founder - says that politicians are doing more to combat climate change than they are given credit for (see "Progress on climate change action at national level"). It is a reminder that the impotent United Nations negotiations are not the only game in town.
But don't expect too much. Even if we began seriously cutting emissions, it would make little difference in the short term. A new study on stopping the impacts of climate change shows that rapid emissions cuts now would have only a small effect by 2050. The big dividends only emerge around 2100 (Nature Climate Change, doi.org/j7g).
This effectively means that emissions cuts cannot help us or our children. That is not an argument for giving up, but it doesn't inspire confidence that emissions reductions will ever be made a priority. [more]