Climate Change Is Behind This Year of Extreme Weather Events. Are We Ready for What Comes Next?

Increasingly extreme weather events are already testing California’s preparedness.

PUBLISHED AUG 25, 2023 12:00 P.M.
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The Pajaro River levee broke during the 2023 atmospheric river storms, flooding the town of Pajaro.

The Pajaro River levee broke during the 2023 atmospheric river storms, flooding the town of Pajaro.   1-184 Infantry Regiment, California National Guard / Wikimedia Commons   Public Domain

Southern California in mid-August, 2023, found itself cleaning up in the aftermath of the first tropical storm to make landfall in the state since 1939. The rare storm dumped record quantities of rain on areas across the region, including Palm Springs, San Diego and downtown Los Angeles. Fortunately, the state avoided a calamity, as the storm somehow caused no deaths or major property damage in California. 

Nonetheless, Tropical Storm Hilary—which had surged to a Category 4 Hurricane status before weakening as it approached California—was only the latest in a series of unusual and extreme weather events to hit the state, and the country, in 2023. By the end of July, the United States had taken $39.7 billion in damage from 15 weather and climate events that topped $1 billion each, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. That’s the second-most damage during those months in any year since 1980. Only 2021 suffered more at $45.1 billion.

2023: A Catastrophic Year for the Climate

The rare California tropical storm only looks more alarming when placed in the context of 2023 as a whole, a year that was filled with extraordinary climate events from the start. In California, 2023 got underway with 12 major rainstorms, and snowstorms in higher elevations, that resulted from atmospheric rivers—long, narrow stretches of vaporized water in the atmosphere that condense into precipitation when they flow over land. Months before Tropical Storm Hilary, some areas of California were already drenched with record rainfall from the atmospheric rivers.

At some point in July, one of every three people in the United States was living under an “excessive heat” warning, watch, or advisory.

In other areas of the country, and the world, 2023 saw sizzling temperatures. The month of July was the hottest recorded month in history, going back to 1880 when temperature records were first kept, according to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. California, at least the coastal regions, were largely spared the extreme heat, though inland cities including Sacramento, Anaheim, Redding and Palm Springs set single-day heat records

At some point in July, one of every three people in the United States was living under an “excessive heat” warning, watch, or advisory.

Canada was scorched by its worst wildfire year on record, with more than 5,700 blazes devastating more than 33.9 million acres of Canadian land, more than twice as much as in 1989, the previous record year. The fires sent so much smoke over the border that air quality in six American cities ranked among the world’s 30 worst. An unusual drought affecting 60 percent of Canada combined with unusually high temperatures created the conditions that allowed the fires to thrive.

On the Hawaiian island of Maui, the third-deadliest wildfire in American history—and worst in 105 years—ignited on Aug. 8. Two weeks later 115 people were dead and 850 still listed as missing. Drought conditions leading to excessively dry vegetation as well as the highly flammable invasive grass species that cover the island were blamed for the severity of the fire.

Climate Catastrophe Around the World

While heat and fire ran wild in much of the country, the mostly rural New England state of Vermont was deluged by unprecedented rainfalls—up to nine inches in 48 hours fell in some areas—that resulted in catastrophic flooding. Nor was the climate chaos of 2023 confined to North America. Italy suffered its third-hottest year in history and according to a study by Coldiretti, a famer’s organization, recorded 11 extreme climate events per day through the first seven months of the year. China was also scorched with a record-setting heatwave—reaching 126 degrees on July 16 in a northwestern region, a single-day record for the country.

Scientists have known about, and been consistently warning of, human-made climate change since the 1950s. And yet, more than 70 years later, significant questions abound over whether, as a society, we are prepared for what’s happening now, and what’s to come.

But that wasn’t all. The heatwave was followed by massive rainfall from a tropical storm that caused such extensive flooding that 1.3 million people were displaced, including from the capital city of Beijing. India was swamped with deadly floods of its own, while a typhoon described as “freak” and “unusually intense” slammed through the Philippines, Japan and Guam.

Behind this worldwide barrage of seemingly apocalyptic climate catastrophes lay the ever-present phenomenon of climate change. The world is getting hotter, largely due to humankind’s relentless burning of fossil fuels, and other human activities as well. The rising temperatures on the planet’s surface, especially in the oceans, set off a chain reaction of new climate conditions that create an environment for more extreme, destructive weather happening more frequently.

None of this should be a surprise. Scientists have known about, and been consistently warning of, human-made climate change since the 1950s. And yet, more than 70 years later, significant questions abound over whether, as a society, we are prepared for what’s happening now, and what’s to come.

Wait. Are All of These Disasters Really Caused by Climate Change?

Connecting climate change to specific extreme events is always controversial, and there is often a rush to claim a disconnect. After the Maui fires, the ABC News website ran a story headlined “Why Climate Change Can’t be Blamed for the Maui Wildfires.” After objections, and much to the consternation of Fox News—which ran its own story about the story—ABC quickly altered the headline to add a qualifier, now reading “Why Climate Change Can’t be Blamed Entirely for the Maui Wildfires.”

The story was based largely on quotes from UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain, quotes that came from a YouTube livestream video Swain had posted. But Swain himself later objected that the ABC story had distorted his position. The UCLA scientist never said that Maui fires could not be blamed on climate change. Instead, in his video, he made the point that it’s simply too early to tell—but media reports, he said, too often attribute extreme weather events to a “singular causality” when in fact the causes of any event are complex. 

“Disasters are almost never solely due to climate change,” another climate scientist, Andrew Dessler of Texas A&M University, told reporter Emily Atkin. “The real question is what role climate change is playing, and the article seems to be minimizing the role of climate change, a choice that’s not supported by any analysis.”

Researchers in the emerging field of “attribution science” have indeed been able to link specific weather events to climate change, but such studies take time, too much time to say for sure at this point whether the Maui fires were directly caused or made worse by climate change-related factors.

What is certainly true, according to a March 2023 report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is that extreme natural disasters are happening more frequently and with greater intensity than climate scientists predicted, and that climate change is the reason for the rapid escalation.

“Countries can either plan their transformations, or they can face the destructive, often chaotic transformations that will be imposed by the changing climate,” wrote Clark University’s Edward Carr, a co-author of the report.

Ready or Not, Extreme Climate Events Are Here

Starting more than a century ago, California began a massive project to tame the climate, building levees—more than 13,800 miles of them—in order to control flooding both for the purpose of protecting people and property, and for land reclamation. That’s the process of turning swampy wetlands into dry land that is farmable or buildable. 

But will that levee system hold as large-scale rainstorms get more frequent? The atmospheric river storms of early 2023 offered a disconcerting warning that the answer may well be “no,” when a levee along the Pajaro River in Monterey County failed, forcing a midnight evacuation as the adjacent town of Pajaro flooded.

“We’ve spent 150 years in the West trying to tame nature. The idea of letting nature go runs counter to 150 years of practice. That’s the hard part.”


California is already in the process of changing its approach to flood control, allowing some levees to be built further from rivers. The “setback levees” allow rivers to overflow over undeveloped land, reducing the risk of floods that threaten lives and homes. But according to a New York Times report, the effort faces “big challenges”—not the least of which is persuading homeowners to vacate their homes to make way for the new setback levees.

But the toughest challenge may be altering the frontier mentality that built California and the West, the belief that humanity is the master of nature.

“We’ve spent 150 years in the West trying to tame nature,” watershed scientist Joshua Viers of UC Merced told the Times. “The idea of letting nature go runs counter to 150 years of practice. That’s the hard part.”

The Wildfire Warning Conundrum

In Hawaii, Maui’s top emergency management official was forced to resign after his failure to sound warning sirens to alert residents to the approaching fires. But in California, most towns likely to lie in the path of wildfires have no siren system. The town of Paradise, at the center of 2018’s deadly Camp Fire—which killed 84 people—finally deployed a siren system in 2023, five years after the tragedy.

But whether it’s sirens or the system of phone calls and cell phone alerts that California relies upon, officials—as they were in Hawaii—must balance the need to issue warnings with the desire to prevent panic. Then there’s the problem of residents in fire-prone areas simply neglecting to opt in to the electronic alert system.

In Sonoma County, a region subject to frequent wildfires, only 12 percent of residents are signed up to receive fire alerts. And in some cases, even those who are signed up for the alerts don’t receive them because cell towers and power lines go down, making transmission of the messages impossible.

In some cases, climate change catastrophes simply haven’t been considered. In New York City, officials admitted that they had never thought about the possibility of smoke from wildfires overwhelming the city’s air quality.

But all of these disastrous scenarios will only become worse and more frequent, as has happened in 2023, as climate change continues to heat the planet.

“We’ve been moored in resilience systems that just aren’t working anymore,” Carnegie Mellon Institute for Politics and Strategy Professor Baruch Fischhoff told NBC News. “Systems that sort of worked in the past are just stretched beyond their limits.”

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