Dr Fredi Otto is the Acting Director of the Environmental Change institute and an Associate Professor in the Global Climate Science Programme where she leads several projects understanding the impacts of man-made climate change on natural and social systems with a particular focus on Africa and India.
Her new book, Angry Weather: Heat Waves, Floods, Storms, and the New Science of Climate Change published by Greystone Books is due out on 17th September in the UK (and 2 days earlier in USA), and I for one, can’t wait to read it.
The attribution work Dr Fredi Otto has helped pioneer is extremely important and here’s why …
We need to be able to move beyond the general global trends that have tended to dominate the conversation on climate change. These demonstrate beyond doubt that human greenhouse gas emissions are the dominant factor in creating a warmer world, where extreme weather events are an expected outcome.
What has been harder to assess is the ability to pin a particular extreme weather event on man-made global warming.
I am hoping that this book will help me – and maybe you? – on a journey of discovery, to learn more about advances in our understanding of how to make that link (I am ordering my copy through my local bookshop The Yellow Lighted Bookshop, not Amazon, because (a) I support local businesses whenever I can and (b) YLB are just brilliant!)
In a previous era when smoking and lung cancer cases first began to appear in the courts, the tobacco companies would use the defence that nobody could be sure if this or that particular case was due to smoking or would have happened anyway. It was just bad luck!
No matter that the bad luck was rising exponentially amongst smokers.
The fossil fuel companies can and will use the same cynical defence.
Sir Richard Doll and collaborators did pioneering work to demonstrate the link between smoking and lung cancer in 1950, using novel statistical methods to overcome the charge that ‘correlation does not mean causation’. In this case it most certainly did. Remember, that this long ago, the underlying biochemical mechanisms were not that well understood, and it was 3 years before we had even the basic structure of DNA established, in that seminal year when I was born 🙂
So, climate attribution science – the ability to pin man-made climate change on particular extreme weather events – is a complete game-changer.
The advantage here is that the underlying physical mechanism are extremely well understood, relying on 200 years of accumulated fundamental science. No need here for any new fundamental physics.
But once again, statistics is the hurdle that must be overcome.
Because while at a global level, the uncertainties as to the human causation for global climate change have now essentially decreased to the point where humanity’s fingerprints are all over man-made global warming, as one gets to smaller and smaller scales, the uncertainties mount up, for quite basic statistical reasons.
Once again, innovations are required in order to demonstrate the link at the level of a Hurricane Sandy, or the recent extreme Australian Fire season.
But imagine the implications of being able to make these connections.
We would then be in a position to hold businesses and politicians to account for their inaction, and put a price on the consequential damage, at least in the narrow sense of the quantifiable impact on property; something they at least understand .
As Dr Otto says:
“If governments don’t do their job and don’t do enough to put a stop to climate change, then courts can remind them of their purpose.”
So, far from being about some dry technicalities regarding climate attribution and statistical analysis, this book could become part of the tool-kit of everyone involved in action to limit the extent and severity of man-made global warming.
I really hope it does.
(c) Richard W. Erskine, July 2020
 It is tragic that we seem – at least in the Anglo-Saxon culture – to put so much more weight on loss of property than loss of habitat or life even, but that bias can be turned to our advantage.