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We must do more than adapt

Did global warming contribute to the heat wave during the summer of 2012? How about Superstorm Sandy? A group of 78 scientists last week gave their preliminary answers, releasing a series of peer-reviewed analyses on major weather events last year. The picture they offer is of a planet in which warming has boosted the chances that certain unwelcome weather or weather-related disasters will occur.

Not all bad weather is related to global warming. Of the 12 events scientists studied, experts saw evidence of a climate-change component in only half.

One of them, though, was that 2012 heat wave. One of the papers reckons climate change was responsible for about 35 percent of last year’s heat.

Sandy, meanwhile, was an unlucky break, a big storm that slammed into New York during high tide. But, regardless of where the storm came from, rising sea levels related to climate change make catastrophic flooding more likely. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns: “Ongoing natural and human-induced forcing of sea level ensures that Sandy-level inundation events will occur more frequently in the future from storms with less intensity and lower storm surge than Sandy.”

These findings aren’t as satisfying as sure proof linking one effect to one clear cause.

Get used to it; experts are still sorting out the best ways to attribute weather events, and they should be cautious.

One thing NOAA is clear about, though, is that continued warming will increase the frequency and severity of certain events, which will require humans to adapt. Then there are the long-term consequences that are harder to predict. These knowns and unknowns are why humans shouldn’t just adapt but head off excessive future warming by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions now.

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