Adam Sobel Testifies on Extreme Weather and Climate Change: Uncertainty is Not Our Friend

In a hearing of the House Science Committee, the meteorologist weighed in on heatwaves and hurricanes, and underscored the need for action.

Marie DeNoia Aronsohn
September 26, 2019

Adam Sobel, founding director of Columbia University’s Initiative on Extreme Weather and Climate, which is based at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, testified today before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. The hearing was entitled, “Understanding, Forecasting, and Communicating Extreme Weather in a Changing Climate.”

Sobel told the assembled legislators that extreme weather is changing due to global warming. He described heat waves as the best understood type of extreme weather event, and said research linking heatwaves to global warming is substantive. “When any heat wave occurs today, it is likely that global warming made it more likely, more intense or both.”

He also conveyed science’s understanding about the way climate change is impacting the intensity and frequency of hurricanes.

“Hurricane risk is increasing due to climate change,” he said. “Storm surge-driven coastal flooding is certainly becoming worse due to sea-level rise. We know little, though, about how hurricane frequency — the total number of storms per year — changes with warming.”

While Sobel described the areas of climate science uncertainty, he was emphatic that this uncertainty is not a reason to delay action. He compared the situation to an FBI investigation where agents have inconclusive but worrying evidence about people who may be planning an attack.

“These people are having a meeting, and the FBI has managed to plant a microphone in the room, but it is noisy and the bad people are speaking quietly, making it impossible to hear what they are saying. Would we want the FBI to interpret uncertainty as meaning there’s no need to worry?” posited Sobel.

Sobel went on to advocate for continued investment in the science of extreme weather, specifically outlining the need to develop a new generation of “catastrophe models” like those used in the insurance industry to assess risks from extreme weather events, but more extensive.

Adam Sobel is the author of Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future.