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Blazing milestones

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WORLD Radio - Blazing milestones

Record high temperatures raise questions about climate change


A sign posted in South Mountain Park amid the city's worst heat wave on record on July 25, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. Mario Tama/Getty Images

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s Thursday the 27th of July, 2023.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

PAUL BUTLER, HOST: And I’m Paul Butler.

Up first: record-breaking heat waves turn up temperatures around the world.

CBS Mornings: Current forecasts show we could potentially see the entire month of July with highs above 110 degrees. And it’s not just in Arizona where the heat is threatening lives

NBC: An unfathomable 101 degree temperature reading just north of the Florida Keys; some of the warmest waters ever recorded.

GLOBAL NEWS: This month's heat is likely the hottest the earth has been in about 120,000 years.

BROWN: So what’s to blame for the record heat waves? For many, the answer is climate change. Here’s climate scientist Kristina Dahl on CNN last week:

KRISTINA DAHL: I think it’s fair to say that around the globe we are not prepared for the type of heat we are experiencing this year, let alone for the heat that we will experience in the future because of climate change.

BUTLER: How is climate change involved in these weather events? And is there more to the picture?

Joining us now is David Legates, retired Professor of Geography and Climatology at the University of Delaware. He’s also the Director of Research and Education at the Cornwall Alliance and specializes in long-term weather and climate data.

Good morning, David.

DAVID LEGATES: Good morning.

BUTLER: Well, you know, I was a child of the 70s. And in the in that decade, there was some concern over the coming Ice Age. And in my youth and young adults, we were talking about global warming, and in recent decades, it's changed to climate change. What's what's the motivation behind that changes? Is it merely to better explain what's happening?

LEGATES: Now, it's largely to encompass a variety of things so that if we get into the winter, and we have a major snowstorm on the East Coast, we can say, see, that's due to climate change. And that's carbon dioxide induced or if we go through several years, where there's no snow at all, in places where you'd expect to find snow. We can also point to that and say, See, that's climate change. So climate change can be up and down, left and right, it can be just changing weather. And of course, in the end of the day, we always blame that on carbon dioxide.

BUTLER: Hmm. Well, speaking of climate change, on Tuesday, a group of European scientists reported that these heatwaves wouldn’t be possible apart from climate change. Now, their study hasn’t been peer-reviewed, but the Wall Street Journal says it is based on peer-reviewed methods. In any case, many news reports attribute record temperatures to climate change. What do most people mean by climate change, and is that the most accurate way to describe what’s behind the hot temperatures?

LEGATES: Weather varies and climate changes. So that's the best way of saying it. So the idea is that we go through periods where things tend to get warmer, things tend to get colder. If we look, for example, at weather station data, we realized that a lot of our weather comes from what we say, since the since records began, and when that usually means is that records began when we moved our weather stations from downtown out to the airports and the airports are in small in rural areas. So the temperature was relatively cooler. And as the city grew around it, the temperatures went up. So you're seeing a combination of longer term climate signals, and shorter term localized effects associated with the urban heat island and the growth of cities. If we look at stations that don't have that effect, and have been around for 100 years or more, we see that the preponderance of days above 100 Fahrenheit or above 105 Fahrenheit, actually peaked in the 1930s. During the dust bowls, there's a second peak in the 1950s. During the droughts, there's a peak, for example, in the early 1980s. But there's lots of variability, but no long term trend that anyone would want to be able to tie to carbon dioxide.

BUTLER: Well, David, you've mentioned carbon dioxide a number of times, and that that does seem to be the boogeyman that many point to what is the benefit? And what are some of the potential challenges of carbon dioxide in our environment.

LEGATES: Carbon dioxide is a life affirming gas. If you go into any commercial greenhouse, you'll find that generally there's a box somewhere in the building that is producing carbon dioxide. And the reason for that is that carbon dioxide causes plants to grow faster. We would expect therefore, from remote sensing, that the planet should be greening. And in fact, there's two major studies that have looked at different channels to try to get an idea as to how much the planet is greening as a result of increased carbon dioxide. And they both say that the planet is much greener now than it was 30 years ago. And carbon dioxide is the responsible candidate. So carbon dioxide isn't the evil gas that we're always told it is.

BUTLER: Well, I think one of the benefits of severe weather is the reminder that perhaps there are things that we can be doing to better steward the environment, whether we are the cause for some of those things or not, as you say, is certainly up for debate. But But how can we, as humans better steward the things that God has given us? And is there anything that we can do to mitigate some of these apparent swings in weather?

LEGATES: I mean, the problem is, we have a tendency to forget. And so the idea is, if we go through a period where there have not been many hurricane landfalls, as we just came out of an extended period of about 15 years, we tend to forget that they do this, that they appear from time to time we build along the coast, we let down our guard. And the next thing, you know, there's disaster. So we've got to be vigilant in realizing that disasters have occurred, they will occur again, we've got to take action. We've got to realize that in particular, the poor are more likely to be affected by these things than those of us who could afford it. And in particular, when all is said and done, inexpensive, cheap energy is the way to lift the poor out of their poverty. And if we keep making energy more expensive as we are by trying to go to wind and solar, as we are by trying to demonize carbon dioxide, and fossil fuels, that we're only going to make it more difficult for those of us that are trying to get out of poor conditions and are trying to make a living.

BUTLER: So from your perspective, the sky isn't falling.

LEGATES: Sky is still there, and I think it will still be there tomorrow. It goes through variability. Sometimes it's higher, sometimes it's lower. But yeah, the sun shall rise again.

BUTLER: David Legates is a retired professor of climatology and serves now as Director of Research and Education for the Cornwall Alliance. David, thanks so much for joining us today.

LEGATES: Thank you very much.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. 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 WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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