- Michael Mannprofessor and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University.
At least 100 people are feared dead after 30 deadly tornadoes devastated towns in eight states, from Kentucky to Arkansas, in a supercell thunderstorm that raged more than 200 miles, leaving behind scenes some compared to a war zone. President Biden has declared a major federal disaster and called for an investigation into the role climate change played in the storms. We speak to climate scientist Michael Mann about the role of climate change in the storms and climate denialism among Republican leaders. “Make no mistake, we have been seeing an increase in these massive tornado outbreaks that can be attributed to the warming of the planet,” says Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
Recovery efforts are ongoing after an outbreak late Friday night and early Saturday morning of more than 30 deadly tornadoes that tore through towns in Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Ohio and Indiana. The tornadoes were part of a supercell thunderstorm that raged for more than 200 miles and left behind scenes that some survivors compared to a war zone.
REED GEARY: It’s just — it’s horrible. It’s the definition of hell on Earth. I can’t — peoples lost everything, and it’s just — it’s terrible. It’s horrible.
AMY GOODMAN: At least a hundred people are feared dead, with the highest death toll in Kentucky, where at least 80 people were killed. This is Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear speaking on CNN.
GOV. ANDY BESHEAR: This is the deadliest tornado event we have ever had. I think it’s going to be the longest and deadliest tornado event in U.S. history. And we know that one of these tornadoes was on the ground over 227 miles — and, Jake, 200 were in Kentucky. I’ve got towns that are gone, that are just, I mean, gone. My dad’s hometown, half of it isn’t standing. It is hard to describe.
AMY GOODMAN: One of the most horrific scenes unfolded for more than a hundred workers who were on the night shift making candles for Mayfield Consumer Products in Mayfield, Kentucky, when a tornado hit their factory.
KYANNA PARSONS-PEREZ: We are trapped. Please, y’all, give us some help. We’re at the candle factory in Mayfield. Please. Please.
AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, the candle company said more than 90 workers have now been located, but eight are confirmed dead, eight more remain missing. Six more workers were killed when a tornado struck an Amazon facility in Edwardsville, Illinois, causing walls on both sides of the building to collapse inward and the roof to fall. Alexander Bird works at another Amazon facility across the street from the warehouse.
ALEXANDER BIRD: So, normally, we have standup before our shift starts. You know, anytime a natural disaster or any bad weather situation goes down, they just tell us, you know, “Take shelter over here.” There are signs that let us know, “Go here.” I had a co-worker that was sending me pictures when they were taking shelter in a bathroom, basically anywhere they could hide, because, you know, people had to think on their feet quick when that happens, because nobody expects it to happen. So, you know, you’ve got to think fast. Crazy.
AMY GOODMAN: This marks the third time in half a year Amazon workers were in the path of weather that was forecast to be potentially deadly, including the record heat wave in the Northwest and deadly flooding from Hurricane Ida in New York. The president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which is organizing Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, said, quote, “Time and time again Amazon puts its bottom line above the lives of its employees. Requiring workers to work through such a major tornado warning event as this was inexcusable,” he said.
After the storms, nearly 90,000 homes and businesses were without power across parts of Kentucky and Tennessee as people searched for survivors in freezing temperatures with limited cellphone service. President Biden approved an emergency declaration for Kentucky Saturday. During his remarks, he addressed the possible impact climate change had on the storms.
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The intensity of the weather across the board has some impact as a consequence of the warming of the planet and the climate change. The specific impact on these specific storms, I can’t say at this point. I’m going to be asking the EPA and others to take a look at that.
AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, FEMA chief Deanne Criswell also drew a link between the tornadoes and the climate crisis on CNN.
DEANNE CRISWELL: We do see tornadoes in December. That part is not unusual. But at this magnitude, I don’t think we’ve ever seen one this late in the year, but it’s also historic. Even the severity and the amount of time this tornado or these tornadoes spent on the ground is unprecedented. … This is going to be our new normal. And the effects that we’re seeing from climate change are the crisis of our generation.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Michael Mann, distinguished professor and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, his new book, The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet.
Michael Mann, welcome back to Democracy Now! Just can you explain what happened and its connections to climate change?
MICHAEL MANN: Yeah. Thanks, Amy. It’s good to be with you, but it’s really unfortunate to be talking about this tragedy. And, you know, we tend to call these things natural disasters, but this isn’t a natural disaster. This is a disaster that was exacerbated by human-caused climate change.
So, let’s look at the basic ingredients for what happened here. You have a very warm Gulf of Mexico right now. Those ocean temperatures are extremely warm. And we know the oceans have been warming because of carbon pollution, because of human-caused climate change. And that warm air and all of the moisture that evaporates off the ocean has been making its way well up into the United States. The southern half of the U.S. was seeing temperatures in the seventies and eighties in December. That’s very unusual. And that’s a combination of the fact that the planet is warming, the Gulf is warming. You’re going to have more of those extreme warm air outbreaks.
But it was aided by what’s known as La Niña. It’s the flipside of the El Niño event. The tropical Pacific is colder than normal right now. That influences the Northern Hemisphere jet stream. It pushes it up, and so that helps move all that warm air up into the central United States. But it also means that that warm air collided with the jet stream, because you need two ingredients here to generate these sorts of tornadoes. You need lots of warm, moist air, that makes the atmosphere more turbulent so you can produce large thunderstorms, and you need it to come into contact, for example, with the jet stream, which puts spin into the atmosphere. When you’ve got all of that moist energy and turbulence, you combine it with the rotation, the spin, you’ve got the ingredients for these massive tornado outbreaks.
And make no mistake, we have been seeing an increase in these massive tornado outbreaks that can be attributed to the warming of the planet. But what’s going to happen here, we’re going to continue to see that climate change is going to combine with natural factors, like the La Niña event that we’re experiencing, to produce ever more extreme examples of these sorts of phenomena.
AMY GOODMAN: This term “thunderstorm supercell,” Michael Mann, explain.
MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, it’s a very wide area of organized convection, we call it. There’s a lot of turbulence in the atmosphere that produces these thunderstorms. And they sort of form a very long line of thunderstorms that are located along the frontal boundaries, the boundaries between the cold air and the warm air that are associated with the jet stream. So you tend to get these supercell thunderstorms under conditions like what we have right now.
And once you get the rotation, once you’re able to combine that with some rotation in the atmosphere, again, you’re going to see the sorts of tornado outbreaks that we saw here: across six states, more than 30 tornadoes, and one tornado that, by some measure — this is the one that struck Mayfield, Kentucky — by some measures, was unprecedented. There were winds measured of more than 300 miles per hour. There was debris that was found 30,000 feet up in the atmosphere. And it traveled nearly 200 miles — again, something we’ve never seen before. The stronger that storm, the more energy in that storm, the more likely it is to survive. And this one survived for nearly 200 miles, doing ever more damage because of that.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you respond to Kentucky Congressmember James Comer? He is a climate change denier. He represents the area of Mayfield where the candle factory just collapsed. And he was questioned on CNN and said, “We’ve had tornadoes that have been the same length as this tornado, but we’ve never had one with the width of this tornado,” and was evasive when it came to “Do you now believe that this is climate change?” as opposed to the way climate deniers talk — you know, “This is a weather situation.”
MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, you know, and I believe he’s a Democratic governor, so —
AMY GOODMAN: Republican.
MICHAEL MANN: Oh, he is a Republican. I’m sorry. Well, unfortunately, this is very prevalent right now in the Republican Party. They are the party, if not of climate change denial, of climate change delay and dismissal. It’s hard to deny that climate change is happening: We’re seeing these devastating impacts play out in real time. And so, politicians, mostly Republicans, who see themselves as advocates not for the people they represent but for the big polluters, the fossil fuel interests, will do anything they can to dance around this question about the role of climate change. They can’t deny climate change is happening, but they resort to various other tactics in an effort to deflect attention. I talk about this quite a bit in The New Climate War. This is the new form of climate change denialism. And we see it here. And the irony, of course, is that it’s many of these red states that are seeing some of the worst consequences of climate change. And those states have governors and politicians who are denying the very source of the problem that their people are facing.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to go to why people believe what they do. And this is something you’ve been talking about. Earlier this month, you tweeted, quote, “Hey @Youtube. It’s good you’re taking down COVID denial videos. Now it’s time for you to remove climate denial videos. They pose an even greater threat to humanity in the long term.” Explain.
MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, climate change — you know, here we saw nearly a hundred people die from these unprecedented tornadoes. But if you look at the total impact of climate change around the world — wildfires, droughts, floods, heat waves, coastal inundation — climate change is already costing far more lives than COVID-19. It is deadlier. And so the denial of climate change is deadlier even than the denial of the basic science behind COVID-19.
But here’s the difference. There isn’t a huge, global lobby, the world’s most powerful industry, wealthiest and most powerful industry, the fossil fuel industry, that has a stake in the COVID-19 debate. So, it’s fairly easy for these Big Tech companies, these social media companies, to stop showing COVID denial, for suppressing COVID denial videos and posts. There isn’t a huge corporate interest that’s going to get in their way. With climate change, it’s a whole different story. We are talking about an effort by the world’s largest, most powerful industry, the fossil fuel industry, to prevent any meaningful action on climate, and to accomplish that in part by using social media to promote denialism and dismissal.
And here, the social media companies are being complicit. And, you know, why are they being complicit? Well, many of them are getting a lot of advertising money from the fossil fuel industry, so it’s inconvenient to their business model to challenge that industry. And I am afraid that that’s what we’re seeing here. And we have to take them to task, because they are doing great harm. They’re making profits by doing great harm to all of us.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you’ve talked about climate models underestimating the frequency of these extreme weather events and the changes to the jet stream. Can you talk about how this can be dealt with, and what do you predict next?
MICHAEL MANN: Yeah. So, you know, the climate models capture the basic mechanisms behind many of these weather extremes that we’re seeing. You warm up the planet, of course you’re going to get more frequent and more intense heat waves. You evaporate more moisture off the ocean, so you have the potential for larger flooding rainfall events, like we’ve seen recently here in the United States, like we’ve seen here in Pennsylvania earlier this fall. You warm up the ground in the summer, you dry it out, you get worst drought. You combine the drought with the heat, and you get the sort of record wildfires that we’ve seen out west, for example. So, those ingredients are all pretty basic. The climate models are able to capture them.
But there’s something else going on, as well. And we sort of alluded to this earlier in the conversation, the way that the jet stream is changing. And the jet stream appears to be, in the summer, slowing down and becoming more wobbly. You see more of those big sort of north-south-north meanders as the jet stream crosses the country. And where the jet stream shows those larger meanders, you’ve got deeper high- and low-pressure systems underneath. And those are associated with extreme weather events — big high pressure out west giving you the heat, the drought, the wildfires; a big low pressure back east, for example, giving us record rainfall in recent summers. And those jet stream patterns get stuck in place, so the same region is experiencing that tremendous heat and drought and wildfire day after day or is experiencing that record rainfall day after day. And we’re seeing a trend towards those sorts of conditions.
The climate models, it turns out, are unable to fully capture that mechanism. So the models, if anything, are underestimating the impact that climate change is having on these extreme weather events and the tendency that we will see for even more extreme weather events if we continue to burn fossil fuels. This really drives home the importance of bringing our carbon emissions down dramatically, as quickly as possible.
AMY GOODMAN: What would be the most effective way to deal with this now?
MICHAEL MANN: It would be for Joe Manchin to join with the other Democrats and pass, by a simple majority vote, the Build Back Better plan with the major climate provisions intact. That will allow Joe Biden to make good on the promises he’s made to the rest of the world to bring our emissions down by a factor of two within the next 10 years. And when the United States leads on this issue, we see that the world comes together. That’s what we need.
AMY GOODMAN: And do you see there being any change, as a person who has worked on this, a leading climate scientist in the world, for decades? I mean, you have the Glasgow U.N. climate summit, you know, almost universally declared a failure. What gives you hope at this point that things will change?
MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, I think sometimes we’re not nuanced enough about these developments. You know, Glasgow, the Glasgow climate summit, was neither a success nor a failure. It was somewhere in between. And if you look at the commitments that were made, the ratcheting up of existing commitments, and you total them up, we’re now on a path potentially to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius, below 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit or so. That’s about half of the warming we were facing back in 2016 going into the Paris accord. So we actually cut the projected warming in half. That’s not enough. Two degrees Celsius, 3.5 Fahrenheit, that’s too much. We need to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
That means that we have to see a further ratcheting up of those commitments, and we also need to see governments making good on those commitments. For example, it’s one thing to make a pledge to bring down your carbon emissions; it’s something else when you continue to approve new gas and oil pipelines and new coal mines. Those sorts of actions are not consistent with keeping warming below dangerous levels. And so we need to see a greater commitment. But we’re making some progress. Carbon emissions have peaked now. They’re not going up anymore. That’s a good sign. We’ve got to bring them down, though, and we’ve got to do so quickly.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Michael Mann, we’re about to interview Vanessa Nakate, who was the cover of Time magazine, a young Ugandan climate activist. As a scientist, can you talk about what’s happening in Africa and the responsibility of the United States, historically the largest fossil — greenhouse gas emitter, to what’s happening in the most vulnerable countries in the world?
MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, that’s right. And, you know, we’re also proud of what she’s doing. This is — you asked earlier about what gives me optimism. I’ll tell you what: It’s the young folks. It’s the youth climate movement. It’s 40,000 children marching through the streets of Glasgow to put pressure on policymakers.
And make no mistake, it is the developing world, it is Africa and other developing regions, that are seeing the worst consequences of climate change, and yet they contributed the least to the problem. Their carbon footprint is orders of magnitude larger than the carbon footprints that we have here in the industrial world. What that means is that there needs to be a commitment from the industrial world, from the industrial countries, to developing countries to help them develop clean energy infrastructure. We don’t want them to go through the fossil fuel stage of economic development. We can’t afford for that to happen. So we have to provide them with the financing and the resources to develop clean energy technology. And that means that the United States, the EU and other industrial countries need to ante up.
And that was one of the problems in Glasgow. Part of why India wasn’t very happy with the proceedings and threw a bit of a monkey wrench into the works at the very late stages of the negotiations was because they weren’t getting the commitment from the industrial world to provide the funding to the developing world so that they can both increase their resilience in the face of the damaging impacts they’re already facing and develop clean energy infrastructure.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Mann, I want to thank you for being with us, distinguished professor and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. His new book, The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet.
When we come back, we go to Uganda to speak with climate activist Vanessa Nakate, founder of the Africa-based Rise Up Movement. Her new book, A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis. Stay with us.