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June 30, 2023

The Double-Edged Sword of Improving Climate Attribution Science

Mark Trexler

As I've been thinking about the recent filing of a $50 billion lawsuit based on the conclusions of attribution science that climate change was responsible for the 2021 heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, and that fossil fuel companies should foot the bill, I'm seeing how focusing on attribution will be a double-edged sword when it comes to the public communication of climate change.

A news story from two years ago sets the stage. In “Seattle meteorologist Cliff Mass sparks controversy by diving into heat wave climate science,” well-known Seattle meteorologist Cliff Mass questioned the role of climate change in causing the heat wave. He's been attacked and vilified for his view, and probably called a denialist.

But the reality is that Cliff Mass accepts the reality of anthropogenic climate change. He argues that we need to seriously tackle it. Shouldn't he be a climate ally, rather than being put into the opposite camp due to his view on a technical scientific question?

From a risk perspective, we should be VERY concerned about climate change. We should consider even 2 degrees C of average global temperature change as an unacceptable risk to take after 10,000 years of global temperature "stability," when there is no "Plan B" planet. As the computer stated in the 1983 movie War Games: "What a strange game. The only winning move is not to play."

My risk-based view about climate change is not influenced by whether every major event can or cannot be statistically attributed to climate change. Yet from the perspective of communicating climate change, there seems to be a general view that blaming everything on climate change is the only way to bring the public around to the need for tackling climate change. Attribution science is a key tool to this end.

If debates over attribution result in the fracturing of the community that is concerned about climate change, if attribution arguments can be mischaracterized to ridicule the idea that suddenly every bad thing happening in the world is attributed to climate change, and if we expect juries of our peers to decide complicated attribution questions as if there were a yes-no answer, could "attribution science" end up doing more harm than good to the cause of tackling climate change?

As we cheer "improving attribution," it's worth asking the question: "If improving attribution science is the answer, what was the question?"



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