The skies in New York City were turned an eerie orange this past June by dangerous smoke from out-of-control wildfires in Canada.

Photo: Nikolay Pokrovskiy/Alamy

What in the World Is Going on with the Weather?

Skies clogged with smoke. Record-shattering global temperatures. Deadly flooding. Warming seas. Were the horrifying weather events of this past summer an aberration, or are they our climate future?

The effects of climate change have been visible for a long time now, but the summer of 2023 may represent a watershed moment in the public’s understanding of humanity’s impact on the global climate. Extreme weather events struck all summer long, from the Canadian wildfires that cloaked the East Coast of the United States in unhealthful smoke and the catastrophic flooding that submerged the capital of Vermont to the rising temperatures of the ocean in Florida and the stretch of four days in July in which the average global temperature was the hottest ever recorded. To put these terrifying events in perspective, and learn what they may tell us about our climate future, we spoke with Yi Ming and Hanqin Tian, two internationally renowned climate change researchers who last year joined Boston College’s Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society. Climate change, they told us, is happening now, and it’s threatening our existence on the planet. We won the lottery, getting to live on this wondrous blue world tucked within the darkness of space, Ming said. If we want to keep it habitable, we’re going to have to make changes, and soon.

This summer’s weather was shocking, even for people who have been bracing for the effects of climate change. As researchers who are quite familiar with the climate data, what did you make of these events?

Yi Ming: People, especially climate scientists, have been predicting this stuff for ages, but suddenly seeing things manifesting in this kind of a rapid succession—I have to confess, even for someone who has been thinking about this stuff for decades, it’s still quite eye-opening unfolding in front of you. It’s pretty crazy. One important note is that right now we also have the El Niño condition in the East Pacific. That’s an abnormal warm condition in the seawater that can last up to several years. Normally that’s thought of as a part of the natural variation, the fluctuation in the system. So, maybe that’s one reason why suddenly it’s getting so bad so quickly.

Hanqin Tian: El Niño impacts places differently. Like in the tropics, they got really high temperatures. And in the middle latitude, like in China, there was a flood. Many people died. In the US, the situation is also getting very serious now. One thing this year that made a lot of news were the wildfires in Canada. These fires are getting more and more frequent, and more and more evidence shows they are linked to climate and warming. 

In 2015, at the UN’s annual Climate Change Conference in Paris, approximately two hundred countries agreed to a goal of limiting the increase in the mean global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The Paris Accords was hailed as a landmark achievement at the time, but what are your thoughts on it seven years later? 

Yi Ming: One thing that is pretty clear is that the 1.5-degree goal laid out by the United Nations is probably not attainable, because we’re breaking 1.5 degrees already, as we speak. It’s always been my personal view that it would be very hard to hit that goal. Obviously, at the end of the day, whatever prediction we have of trending temperatures has to be supported by the empirical evidence. But it’s pretty clear what’s going on. We’re already there.

That’s pretty scary, considering the goal was only set in 2015. What do we need to do?

Hanqin Tian: Communication with the public, I feel, is very important—how this could be serious for your daily life, and more so in the future. Some may still doubt the science, but the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is made up of more than five thousand scientists, and they have provided evidence that climate change is real. I fear that, even after this year’s high temperatures, people will continue business as usual, and continue the emission of greenhouse gases. And that high temperatures and extreme weather will become the new normal. 

Yi Ming: A lot of the warming is built into the system already, so it’s very hard to reverse the trend quickly because of the built-in inertia of the climate system. It takes a while to warm up the ocean, but it will take a while to cool it down. So we have to be ready for what’s to come.

Hanqin Tian: The food security issue of climate change is a big topic. As temperatures increase, you have the process of what’s known as evapotranspiration. Normally, when rain falls and evaporates, some portion of the water goes back to the atmosphere through the evapotranspiration process. But if evapotranspiration is too high, then the soil gets really dry. So plants and crops will not be able to grow. Large portions of Africa will experience this kind of drought in a very serious way. Climate change also involves extreme climate events. One year it’s very dry. Another year, there’s flooding. How can people adapt to this kind of change? In some regions, like northern China, they want more people to grow a rice crop. But the problem is that this area could be warm early in some years, and then other years it could still be cool, and that year-to-year variation could affect crop production, making it unstable. New technology developments could genetically improve the rice, so it could adapt to temperature change and drought, but it would take probably four to five years to make that change. But by that time, the climate will probably already have changed again. That’s really challenging—technology cannot catch up with climate change. 

Photo of Hanqin Tian

  Photo: Lee Pellegrini

Hanqin Tian

Schiller Institute Professor of Global Sustainability

Tian, who came to BC last year, studies interactions among humans, climate, and ecosystems in search of solutions to climate change and sustainability problems. He previously held the Solon and Martha Dixon Endowed Professorship and Alumni Professorship at Auburn University, and was also director of the International Center for Climate and Global Change Research. Tian is a fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, and the Ecological Society of America. He was formerly a researcher at MIT and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Cape Cod.


What are some measures we can take to mitigate climate change? 

Hanqin Tian: Natural, basic climate solutions can contribute to the removal of greenhouse gas. In photosynthesis, plants uptake carbon dioxide—it’s food for them. It gets stored in trees, so we can plant trees as a mitigating effort. There’s also mulch, which can be placed as a cover on depleted soil to prevent carbon dioxide from seeping into the atmosphere. And mitigating methane emissions could have an immediate effect. There are high methane emissions in the production of meat—because cows emit a lot of it—and rice. So eating less meat will help the climate, and so will changing the irrigation systems used in rice paddies. Some countries are very good at developing irrigation technologies, which can reduce methane emission in rice paddies by half. Those are what we call nature-based solutions, which we can do now. They’re very good for developing countries. If they’re economically limited and technology limited, they can still plant trees, or they can improve water usage. 

In 2022, Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which included incentives to encourage the transition to green energy. How has this affected your work?

Yi Ming: I’m working with Richard L. Sweeney, an economics professor at BC, to look at wind energy especially. If you want to have any green transition, wind turbines will have to be a big part of that. But because winds are intermittent, to say the least, we’re thinking about how to use climate models to predict the future variability of winds, and how you can include that kind of insight in the design of the power grid. But I have to tell you, it’s very hard to gain traction even with the Inflation Reduction Act. It’s just the system we built. We have to break our bad habits that depend on fossil fuels. 

How can we adapt to our changing climate patterns? 

Yi Ming: It’s very important to realize that to adapt to climate change, there will be a physical side, and there will also be a mental side. You have to take care of both. At a community level, for example, the tremendous inequality built into society means that more disadvantaged neighborhoods have less green space. As a result, it’s all pavement and concrete that heat up more quickly than a well-vegetated part of the town. Part of the adaptation efforts will be how we increase green space. Not just for heat waves, but also for recreational purposes. It is very important to identify areas of what we call a co-benefit. You’re investing in something that’s going to benefit you on multiple fronts. Besides taking care of people physically, you have to think about the mental health implications, especially for children and younger folks, because they’re growing up in a new climate state. My colleagues here at BC study the impacts of natural disasters on early childhood development. It’s very, very important to take care of people mentally.

Photo of Yi Ming

  Photo: Lee Pellegrini

Yi Ming

Schiller Institute Professor of Climate Science and Society

Ming, who joined BC last year, studies the physical mechanisms that affect our climate system. Previously, he was at Princeton University, where he was a faculty member of the Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, and a senior scientist and divisional leader at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. Ming has been a recipient of the US Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers; the World Meteorological Organization Norbert Gerbier-Mumm International Award; the American Meteorological Society Henry G. Houghton Award; and the American Geophysical Union Ascent Award.


There’s a lot of research out there about climate change. Are there ways to better frame the data to help people truly understand what’s happening?

Yi Ming: All different levels of planning and governance have to be conscious of what’s to come. So that has to be tied to the charge for climate scientists—how to make the latest science more actionable and more useful for local communities. When I speak to finance majors at BC, I talk about insurance premiums. You’re really speaking their language. Homeowner’s insurance companies are refusing to write new homeowner’s insurance in the state of California because of wildfires. So I tell finance majors, “Think about this as a business opportunity. As a climate scientist, you may perceive me as the front of the line in this fight. But you, as finance majors, will have to deal with real people on a daily basis. They will have real concerns. It will affect your bottom line. You’ll have to be very practical. It’s something on your doorstep, and it’s affecting the bottom lines everywhere.” This is the same message being given by some of the faculty members at the Carroll School. They just organized their annual finance conference and there was a big section devoted to climate change.

Given that there are so many countries and companies and other large, intractable entities driving global warming, how can the average person feel like their individual actions have an impact?

Yi Ming: You have to be a good citizen. You cannot just look around and say, they’re not doing their part, why should I? That’s absolutely the classical definition of racing to the bottom. You think about the spirit of this country, how it was founded. It’s a pursuit of a more perfect union. Everything has to circle back to education. We’re here at BC educating future leaders and we need to make them aware of the latest climate science and put all the facts out there. I’m trying to be hopeful that the next generation is going to do a much better job because they’re so aware of what’s going on. That’s the future they’re going to inherit, for good or bad. I think we shouldn’t perceive everything as static. The younger folks are really living up to the expectation, the commitment. If you look at the youth movement around the world, it’s heartening. They’re fully engaged. And they’re not just saying, you’re doing a bad job. They’re actively asking the current leaders to do a better job. That makes me hopeful. 

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