Thursday, June 7, 2012

Why Everyone Believing in Climate Change Might be Really Bad for Climate Change

It’s hard to cut through the layers. A news report links to an NGO briefing. Links to a report. Links to another report. And at the center? Not a solid core, but instead an amorphous collection of scientific uncertainty.

The clamour rises nonetheless.

Meanwhile, scientists have stepped sheepishly aside, not lying so much as omitting the truth. Why should they, when the public concern they’ve been begging for is amplified by each new heat wave and multiplied by every flood.

That question was so rhetorical that I didn’t even bother to end it with a question mark, but I’m going to answer it anyway. Because whether or not one believes the end justifies the means, we’re headed down a road that could really come back to bite the scientific community.

By way of explaining what I mean, I’ll use a concrete example.

Bill McKibben’s campaign recently produced a terrific-looking factsheet. It has large quotations and referenced facts and impressive graphs. I look at it and I struggle to fight the impulse to unquestioningly accept everything they present. The argument they’re making is the same that has attached itself to countless weather reports over recent months: climate change is here now and present in the anomalous weather events experienced by much of North America and Europe this spring. It urges us to “connect the dots”, drawing together hurricanes in Florida and floods in Pakistan to create a picture of a rapidly changing climate.

I want to believe it, because it makes sense. In fact, it’s precisely because it makes sense that it has gained so much traction in the public discourse. Now, for the first time, there is an intuitive link between what we see and experience of climate change and what we read in the literature.

The most satisfying kind of science is the type that provides context and furthers our understanding of intuitive phenomena. But not all scientific findings conform to our intuition (see: string theory), which is in large part why we embraced science so thoroughly in the first place.

I followed all six referenced links on the factsheet. Here is a one or two sentence synopsis of each:

1.       The Munich RE insurance group has kept data on the number of loss-related weather events over the past 25 years. They do not account for an increase in human density over that time.

2.        A paper by Soden, et al. identifies increased tropical precipitation for the period 1979-2008.

3.       A report by the Global Change Research Program shows clear signs of warming but not of increased climatic events.

4.       A blog post by Joe Romm, cherry picking flood data from Tennessee.

5.       Tropical cyclone intensity has increased by ~10% over the past 25 years.

6.       A story on research which indicates that surge floods will, in the future, occur more frequently under conditions of climate change.

To me, this collection of sources betrays not so much the paucity of corroborating evidence, but the hubris of a movement which clearly feels that the empirical evidence speaks for itself.

“Every day, every week, another piece of the puzzle seems to fall into place. More extreme weather seems to have become the rule, not just in the U.S. but in Europe and Asia.” This quotation comes from a meteorologist who, while no doubt well-acquainted with weather patterns, would have no particular training in climatic analysis.

Connecting the dots is now the thinking man’s position and the damndest part – the part that prevents me from speaking out loudly – is that it may be right. The climate may already be increasing the intensity of frequency of extreme weather events all over the globe. What makes me uncomfortable is that the science doesn’t actually support this conclusion yet. 

Nevertheless, 69 percent of respondents to a recent New York Times poll agreed with the statement “global warming is affecting the weather in the United States”. 

Has the general public begun to take a critical look at the scientific literature? Well maybe, but Dr. Cliff Mass of the University of Washington offers a more plausible explanation:

“One does not have to wonder very hard about where Americans are getting their opinions--and it is not from the scientific community.

It is somewhat embarrassing for me to admit this, but part of the problem is that a small minority of my colleagues--people who should know better-- are feeding the extreme-weather/climate hype in the mistaken belief that by doing so they can encourage people to do the right thing--lessen their carbon footprint”

If we start to believe that the existence of climate change is predicated on our ability to see the changes as they happen around us then we have missed the point of relying on science in the first place. If we begin “believing” in science and rejecting those elements which don’t fit with our empirical observations then I would argue that we are no further ahead than we were at the beginning of the scientific revolution, having simply swapped one static faith for another.

Even more importantly for the global climate change mitigation effort, hitching our cart to the horse of empirical observations could backfire badly. The incidence of extreme weather events varies wildly from year to year: how do we explain the state of things if flooding goes down next year? Or the next ten years?  

There is still so much uncertainty involved in making climate predictions. Not “will climate change happen or not?”, but “will it be 1m of sea level rise or ten?”.  If we say ten in order to scare people into taking action, I’m concerned that scientific credibility will take a hit when it turns out to be only 5m. Meanwhile, Bangladesh will have become the world’s largest splash pool.

The 350 campaign and I are entirely agreed on the goal: immediate social, political and economic action to stop climate change. The frustration of spending years without making so much as a dent in public opinion is also a feeling with which I am familiar. I understand, I sympathize and I empathize.

Climate change is a problem which will require massive amounts of human cooperation to solve. I suggest that we embrace our limitations and work within the data we have collected. I can’t endorse connecting the dots, even for such an obviously good cause. 

The uncertainty ahead does not demand that we slow the pace of our actions, merely the pace of our rhetoric. Because – and allow me to put this delicately – if we don’t trust each other enough to work together on this one, we’re screwed.


1 comment:

  1. The media phenomenon you describe has only gained steam - but then, glacial melt and record-breaking weather events DO seem more common of late. Hope you'll revisit this issue - massively important!