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Why Scientists Are Talking About Attribution Science And What It Is


Government officials from around the world are gathered in Poland now trying to hammer out a climate agreement. Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., climate scientists are meeting to discuss the latest developments in their field. NPR's Christopher Joyce joins us now to tell us why this gathering is also significant. Hi, Chris.


SHAPIRO: Before we talk about the meeting in Washington, I want to ask about the one in Poland, where I understand the U.S. delegation has been causing a stir. Tell us what's been going on.

JOYCE: Yes, the delegation got people upset pretty quickly. What they did was they refused to, quote, unquote, "welcome" a scientific report that came out actually last October. The report said climate is changing faster than anticipated, and the world is falling way behind where it should be in reducing greenhouse gases. It was pretty grim. And the U.S., along with Russia, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, said, no, we're not going to welcome that report - that would endorse it - but we'll "note it," quote, unquote. The fact is, Ari, I mean, the rest of the world certainly takes that scientific report seriously. It's the consensus. And it's saying that there's less time left to slow down global warming and that the weather around the world is already getting worse because of a warmer climate.

SHAPIRO: And is that worsening weather, the extreme weather events we've been seeing, also informing the deliberations in Poland right now?

JOYCE: Yes, it is, at least according to the people I talked to who are on their way or went to Poland. They say it's the kind of hard evidence of climate change that computer models predicted many years ago - even as far back as 1990 - that a warmer world would be a different one in terms of weather.

SHAPIRO: Let's also talk about this other meeting happening right now in Washington, D.C., where scientists are talking about climate. What's the focus of this meeting?

JOYCE: Yeah, I mean, it's related. It's the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. It's sort of the working stiffs of climate science coming up with their research. And they're talking about something called attribution science. It's the leading edge of climate science now. And attribution science asks the question, can you tell when a big storm or heat wave is caused by or worsened by climate change? Or is it just a normal variation? Is it so off the charts that it could not of happened in a world before warming? And today they issued a report that listed several events that they believe were worsened by climate change. It was the second time they've done that.

SHAPIRO: Any events we would recognize?

JOYCE: Well, it depends on where you live. In 2017, there was a deep drought in northern plains of the U.S. - Montana, the Dakotas. It was made worse by a warmer atmosphere - incredibly heavy rains in Peru, a brutal heat wave in Southern Europe, bizarrely warm ocean water off of Australia and several more. Some big events that we might think of didn't make the cut. They weren't analyzed in time. But the ones that were listed all enhanced - were enhanced by climate change.

SHAPIRO: Chris, once we know that the global climate is changing, what does it add to our knowledge when we can say that a specific event was linked to climate change?

JOYCE: Well, plan differently - you know, people are beginning to worry about legal liability, for example. I mean, if climate change is affecting the weather - I talked to a lawyer, for example, who is on this weather panel at the scientific meeting. You don't get lawyers on these panels very often. And she said engineers and architects and builders are starting to get worried. They're trying to understand how the science can help them plan. If sea levels are going to rise, and storms get stronger, you know, I need to know how to build to keep my structure up for decades in the new world and not get sued. So you know, the time is here when things like building codes and engineering standards for roads and bridges are going to have to change to anticipate a new weather world.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Christopher Joyce, thank you.

JOYCE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Joyce is a correspondent on the science desk at NPR. His stories can be heard on all of NPR's news programs, including NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.

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