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Climate scientist Michael Mann: The recent floods in Louisiana, West Virginia, and Ellicott City are becoming the norm

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN: It’s already been a year of unprecedented extreme weather. Record floods have been blamed for at least 13 deaths and damage to about 40,000 homes in the U.S. state of Louisiana as authorities began assessing the devastation on Wednesday August 17. Rains that started last Thursday have dumped more than 2.5 feet of water on parts of Louisiana. The American Red Cross has called the flooding the worst disaster to hit the United States since superstorm Sandy in 2012. Meanwhile, July was the hottest month ever recorded. Well now joining us to discuss this from State College Pennsylvania is Dr. Michael E. Mann. Michael is the distinguished professor and director of Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, author of the book, the Hockey Stick and Climate Wars. Thanks so much for joining us. DR. MICHAEL E. MANN: Thank you it’s great to be with you. NOOR: So we’ve seen this historic flooding not only in Louisiana but more recently in West Virginia, even right here close to Baltimore in Ellicott City. Is it, are we seeing more and more of this and is this connected to climate change? MANN: Yeah, and in Texas and Phoenix, Arizona where they had this rain bomb, as it was termed, just this immense down pouring of rain for a short period of time. We often hear about events being characterized as thousand year events and what that means is just given the usual statistic of the weather, we wouldn’t expect such an event to happen more than once in a thousand years. Meaning we probably wouldn’t expect to see it during our lifetimes. And yet we are seeing a plethora of these thousand year events. Whether it’s the flooding events in South Carolina, in Arizona, in Texas as I said and of course this latest event in Louisiana and Alabama. We are seeing thousand year events far too often to be able to attribute them just to randomness. We are seeing the loading of the random weather dice by climate change. NOOR: And talk a little bit about the science behind this. Why is there so much more rain falling across the country than we’ve seen in hundreds of years? MANN: Yeah, it’s sort of interesting because there’s this seeming paradox. We’re seeing worst drought over large parts of the southern United States. The drought in California is unprecedented and ongoing. Yet we’re also seeing these record flooding events. We have long predicted decades ago the climate models which we’re using which are very primitive by today’s standards predicted that we would see an overall expansion of the sort of areas of drought into regions like the southern United States. But we would see more intense rainfall events. So the rainfall events are fewer and farther between but when they do happen they produce much larger amounts of precipitation. The physics behind that is really simple. It’s basic thermodynamics that the warmer the atmosphere is, the more moisture it can hold. So it’s like a sponge. When you have a warmer atmosphere and you squeeze that sponge which is happening when air rises to give us rainfall, you’re going to get more rainfall out of these events and that’s what we’re seeing. So while we could dwell on discussions of the precise role the climate change had with anyone of these events collectively what we’re seeing play out day to day in our weather on our televisions screens is due to the loading of the weather dice by climate change. NOOR: Now we’ve seen publications like the New York Times apologize publicly for not sending teams down to Louisiana until Sunday. The rain, this historic rain started Thursday. So they’ve apologized for that. But is the mainstream media, are they doing a good enough job making the connection that you’re making between these events and climate change? MANN: Yeah, so the New York Times is a good example. They are actually an example of a media outlet that has done a very good job in sort of connecting those dots, explaining how climate change is influencing extreme weather and they have some of the best reporters on the beat there at the New York Times. On the other hand, there was a segment just last night on the PBS News Hour which typically does a pretty good job on covering these issues. But there was a fairly disturbing lack of contexts that was provided in that segment when it comes to the way that climate change is influencing these events. They didn’t really do a good job connecting the dots. In fact the segment was far more dismissive about the connection than the science objectively merits. So some outlets even like PBS which we think of as doing a pretty good job when it comes to climate change are failing tin properly connecting the dots. NOOR: And finally can we expect more of this extreme weather and what can we do about it? MANN: Yeah, unfortunately many, my colleagues like to say that we have to deal with a new normal. It’s even worse than that. There will be no new normal. Because everything continues to shift. We continue to see even more and more of these events as we continue down this highway of escalating carbon emissions and further warming of the planet and the resulting climate change. The only way to prevent that is to bring our emissions to a rapid decent. The good news is that we’re starting to see some progress. The Paris Summit last year, some of the other policy developments that have occurred since then were starting to turn the corner in transitioning away from a fossil fuel economy but we’re going to need to do it even faster if we’re going to avoid ever more catastrophic climate change. NOOR: And you know just to turn to the political spectrum just for a moment if that’s okay, Hillary Clinton’s transition team has been criticized for its links to fossil fuel extraction and fracking and certainly Donald Trump doesn’t seem to be any different in that respect at least. There are other differences there of course. Do you have any thoughts you can share of course on the presidential election and climate change and the policy platforms of the two leading candidates? MANN: Sure. I think it’s night and day frankly. And while we can always criticize some of the specifics of any candidate, I actually consider Hillary Clinton to be extremely strong on climate change. In fact, I’ve interacted with her and her team in the past. I know that they get the science. I know that they care about the problem. And we can quibble about some of the specifics of their policies but it’s night and day when it comes to the contrast between Hillary Clinton who really will act on climate change and Donald Trump who joins many other in his party unfortunately dismissing that there’s even a problem. So this next election may be a make or break election for dealing with climate change. And the contrast couldn’t be greater. If you care about climate. If you are worried about climate change then I think the choice is fairly clear in this next election. NOOR: And if there are specifics on issues like fracking and fossil fuel extraction for Hillary Clinton, what specifics would you like to see her adopt? What policies? Where would you like, if you could write here environmental policy platform, what would you like to see in there? MANN: Well there’s always a bit of a compromise here because you know you have to work with the business community but you have to put your foot down when it comes to policies that just are not acceptable. Like the expansion of the tar sands, the continued mining of the tar sands, the building of a pipeline and Hillary Clinton is against that. And she’s for putting a price on carbon. So my argument would be that Hillary Clinton’s approach on this more or less consorts with my own feelings about what’s the best way to deal with this problem. In the case of natural gas and fracking, you could ban it outright or you could put a price on carbon. If we put a price on carbon, then the damage that natural gas, oil, and other fossil fuels are doing to the planet, will be taken into account in terms of a signal in the market place. And that will push us in the direction of that transition away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy. So I actually think that the sorts of market mechanisms that Hillary Clinton supports can solve this problem. I’m not sure we need an outright ban. Some would argue that it’s better to work within the sort of, the market itself to solve these problems and I think she’s got good policies for doing that. NOOR: All right, Michael, we’ll invite you on again because some would argue that the market has proven that it is willing to take us down this path of disaster of climate change and you know there are more radical steps that need to be taken. But yeah–. MANN: That’s why we need a price on carbon. To make sure that the market can’t get away with doing that. Absolutely. NOOR: Alright. Well, we’ll certainly look forward to continuing this discussion. Thank you so much for joining us. MANN: Me too. Thank you. NOOR: Thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.


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Dr. Michael E. Mann is a Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Penn State University, with joint appointments in the Department of Geosciences and the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI). He is also director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center (ESSC).