Don’t mention the weather

18

When I woke up this morning, determined to write something quick and angry about extreme weather events, it was to discover, great minds etc, that Bill McKibben had been similarly provoked, and had the advantage of time zones over me.

I don’t know what drove Bill over the edge. Perhaps it was the US media being more interested in getting a “revised” prophecy of the date of the “rapture” from that vicious old fool, not content with the damage already done to his weak-minded followers, Harold Camping, than to talking about the climate change already afflicting our planet.

For me it was this article that sent me hot foot to the keyboard. Where Steve Connor, “science editor” for the Independent recorded “It is estimated that this April alone there were something like 600 tornadoes in the US. Scientists are not sure why this year has been such a record tornado year but one suggestion is that there has been a particularly strong jetstream blowing over the North American continent” before concluding “There is no evidence so far that the record number of tornados have anything to do with climate change. However, some experts believe they may become more frequent”.

Maybe it wasn’t the hapless Connor though, I had been primed earlier by the usually excellent Ben Eltham who said “Flannery, for instance, showed admirable restraint last night on 7.30 as the ABC’s Chris Uhlmann asked a series of irrelevant questions about tropical cyclones.”

We (and by “We” I mean those of us in the reality-based world of science) have done the world a disservice I’m afraid. Oh with the best possible intentions, but you know what they say – the road to a 6 degree warmer world is paved with good intentions.

No, I am being a bit too kind there. What has actually happened is that we allowed ourselves to be sucked in by the climate change deniers. It was as if they had challenged Roger Federer to a tennis match and then said, at the last moment, “oh, of course we won’t be using rackets and balls, we are going to throw gum boots”.

You see every time in the last ten years there has been an extreme weather event, a record-breaking weather event, something so far out of the ordinary as to be noteworthy, newsworthy, so extreme as to kill many people, destroy towns and lives, the deniers have screamed “don’t you dare to try to blame that on global warming”. And we haven’t. Backed away muttering oh so politely (politeness reigns on this side of the looking glass world) “good heavens no, wouldn’t dream of it, no, no, can’t attribute individual events to global warming, oh my goodness gracious no, that would be very naive, going beyond the evidence, we just aren’t that kind of people.”

Well, true enough. No sorry, let me start again. Well, true. Was the town of Joplin, Missouri destroyed by global warming? Would there have been a tornado anyway? As strong a tornado, as devastating? Who knows. Not the question, never was the question. Sorry, just a moment, I can hear the chorus again “Don’t you try to make political capital out of people’s misery you bastard, typical extreme greenie”. I am supposed to take this as the final word, and once upon a time, in Kansas, I would have done so. But we are not in Kansas any more, time the wicked witch was flattened under a collapsed house.

We went you see from agreeing with the self-evident proposition that an individual event wasn’t caused by global warming to refusing to talk about extreme weather at all. “OK you guys” we said “we won’t talk about droughts and floods and storms. Don’t need to, the planet is slowly warming at a steady but slowish rate, sea levels likewise, ocean acidity as well, ice melting ditto. All we need to do is tell you that if things keep going the way they are (I mean you can all read graphs, right?) in 100 years time things could be very uncomfortable for us all”. There, that should do the trick.

In the mean time the deniers (remember Federer and gum boots) were busy doing exactly the reverse. Claiming that every cold day in Oklahoma was evidence against global warming, every warm period was just El Nino, oh and didn’t we know that the Chinese had sailed across the Arctic Ocean in 1421 and had a fireworks display at the North Pole. By agreeing not to mention the weather (“don’t mention the weather”), that is the manifestation of climate that actually affects the public on a day to day basis, we have made absolutely certain that the public will remain blissfully unaware, so many frogs in a pond, that the evidence of their eyes and other senses (including their common sense) is not to be believed. If the scientists won’t say that extreme record-breaking events are the result of global warming, and the deniers are saying they are not, then there is really no contest of ideas. Are we geting tornados and droughts and floods because of global warming? Course not, but in spite of what people like Barnaby Joyce (“look, it’s raining, we were told there would be droughts”) say, that was never the question. “Are we getting stronger, more damaging, longer lasting, more frequent extreme weather events that keep breaking records because of global warming?” “Yes of course we are, you some kind of idiot, what did you think?”

Until we start explaining to people that global warming is going to hit home, is hitting home already, right where they live, we have lost the battle. Lost indeed the war.

Well I mentioned the weather, but I think I might have got away with it.

18 comments on “Don’t mention the weather

  1. Queen of Fractal Beauty says:

    Now you’ve stepped into my backyard. One must indeed be very careful when trying to blame significant wx events on “global warming.”* I’ve seen worse than what happened in Joplin the other day. We have seen far worse right here in Oklahoma City

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1999_Oklahoma_tornado_outbreak

    and there has been worse than that in the distant past.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tri-State_Tornado

    I could give you many more examples, but that would take all day.

    In fact, I’m watching a much more significant outbreak than the one that happened Sunday as I type this.

    Scientists still don’t understand exactly what triggers a tornado (but they’re getting better) and the author of the article that lit the fire under you clearly doesn’t understand that of which he speaks.

    We are on much more solid ground when we focus on changes in trends. Oh, wait a minute. That’s climate. The climate is most definitely changing. I don’t think there are many meteorologists or climatologists who would disagree with that. But even they will refuse to look at individual significant wx events as evidence.

    Getting the public to recognize long term trends is extremely difficult. Maybe impossible. We can only keep chipping away at their huge mental block and hope we make some real progress before it’s too late.

    * I hate that term and much prefer “climate change.”

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  2. Barrie Collins says:

    There’s this thing called inertia a symptom of which is ‘comfort zone'; its too much effort for a lot of people to think outside their box.

    When there’s a disaster of some sort, natural or otherwise we all say, that’s terrible, put $5 in the kitty and sooner or later the problem goes away. The trouble is these climate disasters seem to be happening more frequently. At what point, one may ask, will the comfortable start to notice this onslaught? And will they actually do anything about it. Connect the dots, make a phone call to big oil and coal and their federal representative, go green a bit etc.

    When Brisbane becomes the new Venice on a yearly basis perhaps questions will be asked.

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  3. Colin Samundsett says:

    Ah David, we have precedent, so well illuminated during the 1930s in the USA by the literary expertise in the Lil Abner series of erudite publications.
    All the current players among the ringmasters of our current political circus and their advisers have their close equivalents in the characters (and more) of Jubilation T. Cornpone, General Bullmoose, Ol’ Man Mose, and Joe Btfsplk.
    Cheers(?)
    Colin

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  4. Gail says:

    Ha, I clicked your link at Skeptical Science and found a fellow atheist. Greetings! I have been ridiculed often for suggesting it’s high time for scientists to step out from behind their reticence and make direct connections between climate change and extreme weather…when it’s unprecedented, that is. Adhering strictly to the scientific method is a luxury we can no longer afford. And anyone who worries about losing credibility doesn’t really understand the forces that shape public opinion and policy in the modern world that is dominated by corporate propaganda.

    Perhaps you will enjoy a cartoon on this subject:

    http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/2011/01/kitchen-table-comic.html

    Or maybe you will like my latest thought on denialism and why it is so popular:

    http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/2011/05/there-is-no-god.html

    Anyway I look forward to reading your blog. The eucalyptus leaves look a bit tattered, by the way.

    Gail in New Jersey

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    • David Horton says:

      Hi Gail, most welcome!

      Great cartoon – I could have saved a thousand words!

      Look forward to reading more of your blog.

      The leaves? Eucalypt leaves do get eaten. Although generally they have managed to make themselves unpalatable over millions of years of evolution, in the classic evolutionary arms race some species (koalas of course, although their specialisation is already under threat from global warming as eucalypt mineral and energy content changes; but also a number of insect species) have managed to adapt and then they have a feast laid before them.

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    • Queen of Fractal Beauty says:

      “Adhering strictly to the scientific method is a luxury we can no longer afford. ”

      Are you kidding me? The scientific method is what makes science science. It’s the compass that keeps us on the path toward the truth.

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      • David Horton says:

        Mmmm, you are both right, he said, that old diplomat Horton emerging from his cocktail circuit to soothe an international incident. Yes, the scientific method is what separates us from (in this case) the denial industry, and it is what the modern age is, or was (until the likes of the Tea Party and their no-nothing clones around the world sprang up), fundamentally based on.

        On the other hand Gail I think is saying that if we scientists stay in the cloistered ivy halls, restricting ourselves to conducting the science and nothing but the science, then the likes of Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers will win. And if they win, then all of us, scientists included, lose.

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  5. JohnD says:

    The problem is that climate change does NOT cause individual weather events. Instead, it “loads the dice” so that certain types of events are more likely (oddly enough, both droughts and floods are more common in a warmer world, thanks to the vagaries of precipitation). Thus, inference and the scientific method are the only tools that we have to understand the changes.

    With respect to the recent tornado outbreak, you might be interested in what the IPCC has said:
    “There is insufficient evidence to determine whether trends exist in…..small-scale phenomena such as tornadoes, hail, lightning and dust-storms.”

    Thus, attributing the admittedly high number of tornadoes this year to climate change is reasoning in advance of the data and does your cause more harm than good as it provides fodder to the denialists who would say that we hysterically use any event as evidence for change. Instead, we should only attribute to climate change those things that we know are demonstrably linked.

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    • David Horton says:

      Welcome JohnD. You have missed my point. At present we are rarely even saying “loads the dice”. At present we are talking as if the “weather”, the manifestation of climate that we all experience on a day to day basis, has nothing to do with climate, and we are therefore trying to explain climate change to people without the words to do so.

      Of course climate change doesn’t cause individual weather events – you will find I haven’t said it does. It does influence all weather events though, one way and another, and we are behaving as if it influences none.

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  6. Queen of Fractal Beauty says:

    “…if we scientists stay in the cloistered ivy halls, restricting ourselves to conducting the science and nothing but the science, then the likes of Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers will win. And if they win, then all of us, scientists included, lose.”

    I understood her point, but if scientists bow to popular pressure rather than doing what is right we also lose. Look at the craziness that has ensued in the medical world because of researchers bowing to such pressure. We’ve already passed the point where one can’t believe what is published today because tomorrow it will be refuted.

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    • Queen – agreed. However we ask scientists to be more forthcoming with explanations. To quit being silent. The stakes call out for standing up.

      Another example of science hiding: Hansen’s latest paper – very important – is published behind walls that demand payment to read – the peer review acting to hide the publication.

      Fortunately he and his team published an earlier draft; http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2011/20110505_CaseForYoungPeople.pdf

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      • David Horton says:

        Hello Richard, thank you for dropping by. I don’t know the background to Hansen’s publication. Seems surprising in light of his marvellous “Storms of my grandchildren” book aimed at a general audience. But in general I agree – whatever it takes the findings of climate science need to be out there freely available. Perhaps governments need to subsidise the relevant journals, if cost is a problem? Perhaps we need a scheme where the highly scientific results in some areas of climatology are quickly converted to high quality explanations for a non-expert audience (including politicians).

        It is all still relying on a very old model of scientific publication. With the fate of the planet now in the balance in this critical decade the information should be flowing freely.

        Call in again soon.

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      • Yours is a wonderful site. And thank you for all that you do.

        I should not single out Hansen – his work is most important. That is just one example of how the system of publishing papers fails the public. Of course abstracts are free – but not full papers.

        There should be some press access… I can tell you that any news organization that is run for profit will not have a budget for routinely buying research papers.

        It is one valid flaw in the structure of science. It is hard to get the word out to the public. Every new paper should be read by the science press – yet authors need to make money. I have no solution, do you?

        [ maybe something more than an abstract - a summary maybe]

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      • Queen of Fractal Beauty says:

        Yes, it annoys the crap out of me too that these papers cannot be viewed on line without payment. When having discussions with a scientist friend of mine he is constantly linking to papers he can read but I can’t. Well, I could if I were willing to hop in my car and drive 30 miles to the university. I know right where to lay my hands on printed copies. I finally called him on it and he seemed surprised that I didn’t have access to the online documents. Darn these guys in their ivory towers! 8:-)

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  7. Enjoyed your article! Thank you!

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  8. Susan Anderson says:

    Delighted to see this, so glad to see people beginning to realize they have to say what is real, not just what is scientifically “perfect” (close, anyway). My favorite is Heidi Cullen: climate is weather over space and time.

    I’m raving everywhere, rather repetitively, about this:

    http://www.nnvl.noaa.gov/MediaDetail.php?MediaID=731&MediaTypeID=2

    As the Arctic warms, it is beginning to fail to absorb the excess energy (heat). This disequilibrium, if I understand correctly – corrections welcome – means all bets are off. I cannot believe the steady increase in the violence and frequency of weather events is not affected by this.

    Of course, local weather is quite different from climate, and it is important to remember the local and global, short-term and decades, are different.

    McKibben’s list is incomplete – those who follow world weather over time might remember a good few other locations – recently we’ve had Alberta and Texas fires, Colombia floods, and a good few other catastrophes that fly beneath our north american and eurocentric consciousness. China and South America continue to be blind spots. There’s a big lake in Iran that is turning to salt. Plants are now not absorbing as much CO2. Insects are going wild. One could go on … and on.

    Not to scare you, but you should be scared. Time to get weaving.

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    • David Horton says:

      Hi Susan, welcome to the blog. Yes, the list could be greatly extended, right down to suburban gardeners beginning to see shifts in flowering times, or the nesting of birds. I think these kinds of observations by individuals are the stuff of bringing home to people that change is indeed occurring, bringing home in a way that simply isn’t possible by showing a graph of rising temperatures or decreasing ice coverage.

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