Why a Summer of Extreme Weather Scares Even the Experts: 'It Doesn't Get Better from Here'

"These events have also shown us how severely under-prepared we are for the effects of climate change," scientist Dr. Kristina Dahl tells PEOPLE

hurricane ida
Hurricane Ida. Photo: Steve Helber/AP/Shutterstock

Climate change has ramped up to climate crisis, and there's no better evidence than the recent string of natural disasters impacting the U.S. from coast to coast.

"I am scared. This is what scientists have long been predicting would happen," Dr. Kristina Dahl, senior climate scientist for the Climate & Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "And we are at the front end of it."

Dahl doesn't know how people could look at the wildfires in the west, the flooding in New York, or the millions of people without power or water in Louisiana due to Hurricane Ida and its remnants and not think of this as a crisis.

"The extreme weather we've been experiencing in the U.S. this summer and places all around the world like extreme floods in Germany are all symptomatic of climate change," Dahl says. "These events have also shown us how severely under-prepared we are for the effects of climate change. This really is just the opening salvo."

Hurricane Ida
Flooding from Hurricane Ida. ED JONES/AFP via Getty

Until meaningful progress can be made to slow climate change, people will need to brace themselves for more of these events.

"We need to be preparing and building up the resilience of our communities," Dahl says. "And that's going to require major investments in our infrastructure, but also in community systems so that neighborhoods are stronger and better able to cope with disasters when they happen."

Cajun Navy Relief, a volunteer disaster response team, has provided relief and rescue services during more than a dozen of Louisiana's floods, hurricanes, and tropical storms. The group's president Colleen Udell has seen first-hand the difference it makes when community infrastructures are built to withstand severe weather conditions.

Hurricane Ida smashed into Louisiana on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, striking the same coastline causing widespread decimation. Since then, Louisiana has worked to improve its levee system to prevent that level of catastrophe from reoccurring.

"Thankfully, those levees held," Udell says. "But the damage (elsewhere) is catastrophic."

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Some Florida communities are still in the process of rebuilding after Hurricane Zeta made landfall along the Gulf Coast last October.

"It hit me in the gut. There are homes that still aren't repaired from last year. It's heartbreaking," Udell says. "It's devastating to see some of these smaller towns, especially the more coastal towns, being almost wiped completely off the map. It's horrible."

As for curtailing the damage, Dahl says the most important thing people can do is to cut carbon emissions — and most scientists agree that starts with using fewer fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy sources.

"It needs to happen now. It needed to happen 20 years ago, so we've lost a lot of time by dithering and political infighting," Dahl says. "The more dramatically we can reduce emissions globally, the better off we're going to be in capping these extreme kinds of events."

Flames consume a home as the Caldor fire pushes into South Lake Tahoe, California on August 30, 2021
Wildfires in California. JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty

Evidence and studies show that warming air and ocean temperatures are increasing both the frequency and severity of heavy storms, according to a recent report from the United Nations. That isn't going to magically stop.

"We have to acknowledge what the root cause is here, because it fundamentally comes back down to human activity," Dahl says. "It's no good putting solar panels on your house if you continue to fly around the world five times a year. We need a sanity check and we need to check our own behavior."

Even with dramatic reductions in carbon emissions, severe weather will continue.

"If we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, sea level would continue rising for decades to centuries," Dahl says. "Some of these things are going to be difficult to stop or turn around. Others, we do have the potential to kind of put a cap on, but it's going to require an incredible transformation of human society."

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