Catastrophic floods in the Hudson Valley. Unrelenting heat dome over Phoenix. Ocean temperatures hit 90 degrees Fahrenheit off the coast of Miami. Surprise storm in Vermont, rare tornado in Delaware.
A decade ago, any of these events would have been seen as an aberration. This week, they’re happening simultaneously as climate change fuels extreme weather, prompting New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, to call it “our new normal.”
Over the past month, smoke from Canadian wildfires blanketed major cities around the country, a deadly heat wave hit Texas and Oklahoma and torrential rains flooded parts of Chicago.
“It’s not just a figment of your imagination, and it’s not because everybody has a smartphone now,” said Jeff Berardelli, the chief meteorologist and climate specialist for WFLA News in Tampa. “We have seen an increase in extreme weather. This is definitely happening.”
It will probably become more extreme. This year, a powerful El Niño developing in the Pacific is poised to release additional heat into the atmosphere, prompting even more severe weather around the globe.
“We’re going to see things happen this year around the Earth that we haven’t seen in modern history,” Mr. Berardelli said.
And yet even as storms, fires and floods become increasingly common, climate change lives on the fringes for most voters. In a nation focused on inflation, political scandals and celebrity feuds, only 8 percent of Americans identified global warming as the most important problem facing the country, according to a recent. NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey.
As climate disasters become more common, they may lose their shock value. A 2019 study concluded that people learn to accept extreme weather as normal in just two years.
“This is not only a complicated issue, but it’s competing for attention in a dynamic, uncertain, complicated world,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of Yale’s Program on Climate Change Communication.
Lilian Lovas, a 77-year-old lifelong Chicagoan, said she has seen climate change affect her hometown, but she avoids the news to stay positive.
“It used to be so cold here in the winter, but now we only get a few real bitter days a year,” she said. “I vote and do my part, but things are really out of my hands.”
Kristina Hengl, 51, a retail worker in Chicago, said she’s not so sure the weather extremes are anything that hasn’t happened before.
“I’m not a scientist, so it’s hard for me to make a judgment call,” she said, before offering a vague explanation. “Our planet has always had changes and this may just be the cycle of life. You have to consider that deserts used to have lakes, Lake Michigan wasn’t always a lake.”
Despite the growing alarm among climate scientists, there is little evidence of the kind of widespread social change that would reduce the greenhouse gases that are dangerously warming the planet.
“Although storms and other extremes of the climate do happen, if they are far away, we are just as quick to pretend that it does not affect us, because we do not want to do the things necessary to deal with this threat. ,” said Paul Slovic, a professor at the University of Oregon who specializes in the psychology of risk and decision-making.
“More and more people recognize climate change as a problem, but they don’t like the solutions,” Mr. Slovic added. “They don’t want to have to give up the comfort and convenience that we get from using energy from the wrong sources, and so on.”
Last Thursday, in what researchers say was the hottest day in modern history, a record number of commercial flights, each emitting more planet-warming gases, were in the air, according to Flightradar24.
As wildfires and rising sea levels wipe out communities from California to North Carolina, residents continue to rebuild in disaster-prone areas.
And while more electricity is being generated by wind, solar and other clean energy, the world is still largely powered by fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal, the main sources of planet-warming emissions.
The cumulative effects of all those greenhouse gases are now horrifically shown around the world. The planet has warmed by an average of 1.2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, fueling a dizzying array of extreme weather events.
Studies show that the deadly flood in Pakistan last year, the heat dome that baked the Pacific Northwest in 2021 and Hurricane Maria that hit Puerto Rico in 2017 have all been made worse by climate change.
“Climate change is here, now,” said Michael Mann, a climate scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s not far in the Antarctic and it’s not far in the future. It is these climate changes that have fueled the extreme weather events that we all experience.”
Weather disasters that cost more than $1 billion in damage are on the rise in the United States, according to a Climate Central analysis from data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In 1980, the average time between billion-dollar disasters was 82 days. From 2018-2022, the average time between these most extreme events, even controlled for inflation, was just 18 days.
“Climate change is pushing these events to new levels,” said Bernadette Woods Placky, chief meteorologist at Climate Central. “We don’t get breaks between them to recover like we used to.”
Human activity has had such a significant impact on the ecosystems and climate of the planet that scientists are now debating whether to declare that the Earth has entered a new interval of geological time: the Anthropocene.
And with emissions still rising globally, scientists warn that there is only a short time to drastically change course before the effects become truly catastrophic.
“This is the last slap in the face we’re going to get when it might still matter,” said Bill McKibben, a longtime climate activist. “It is obviously a pivotal moment in the climate history of the Earth. It must also be a pivotal moment in Earth’s political history.”
In the United States, climate change is a partisan issue, with many Republican leaders questioning established climate science, promoting fossil fuels, and opposing renewable energy.
Climate scientists and environmentalists hold out hope that each new hurricane and hailstorm could nudge Americans into action.
A survey of adults this spring found that a majority now care about climate change and support federal action to fight global warming and promote clean energy, according to a recent survey from Yale.
Even in Florida, a state that has grown more conservative in recent years, a growing number of residents believe humans are causing climate change, including a record number of Republicans, according to survey by Florida Atlantic University.
“The polling data has changed over the last few years, and I’d bet it’s going to fluctuate again,” Mr McKibben said. “At a certain point, if you see enough fires and floods, who are you going to believe?”
Additional reports from Cara BuckleyRobert Charito, Delger Erdenesanaa and Raymond Zhong.