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Kathie Dello, a climate scientist said the study helps to pin the blame for the heat wave on climate change.

“If searching for a culprit for the intensity of these recent European heat waves, climate change is the obvious culprit,” Dello said in an email. “Attribution is just dusting for fingerprints. Climate change will continue to be a menace when it comes to extreme heat, making these events more likely and more intense.”

I was reading a Washington Post article and couldn't understand the sentence marked in bold. I looked up all the words in dictionary and found out the meaning of each word, but still couldn't get what it means in this context.

Was it used in a figurative sense? What does it mean here?

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When trying to understand this passage, the key word to understand is culprit. From Oxford:

culprit (noun) a person who is responsible for a crime or other misdeed.
• the cause of a problem or defect: viruses could turn out to be the culprit.

So, a culprit can be a criminal, or a cause. Ms. Dello begins her quote with:

If searching for a culprit... climate change is the obvious culprit.

Clearly this relates to that secondary meaning of culprit: "The cause of a problem or defect". However, Dello then twists the word to its primary meaning – a criminal – when she adds (metaphorically):

Attribution is just dusting for fingerprints.

Dusting for fingerprints is often an early step in criminal investigations. Dello is attempting to cleverly say that figuring out the cause of the recent heat waves is merely a first step, implying that more needs to be done besides merely identifying the root cause of the problem.

  • You didn't mention that attribution is the act of assigning the responsibility of something to someone. When you attribute something to someone, you say that they're the person who did it. (In the context of quotations, they're the person who wrote the passage quoted). So, the person who left the fingerprints is responsible for leaving them there. Therefore, you are attributing the prints to them. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Aug 22 '19 at 1:19
  • @JasonB – Sure, but the OP has already looked up each word individually, so I didn’t think that needed to be explained. – J.R. Aug 22 '19 at 1:28

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