Thursday, April 24, 2008

Patience, my friends

It has been an unseasonably cool spring here in British Columbia. Frosts in the Okanagan Valley have damaged the fruit crops. Skiers are fuming that the ski areas are sticking to previously scheduled closing dates, despite ample snow depths.

On Saturday morning, I awoke to the sight of snow. The flurries caused much consternation in coastal city. Never mind that the snow was only a dusting, even by the the standard of this mutant, ever-green corner of Canada.

So, naturally, the questions came: "What happened to global warming?"

By now, with daily coverage of climate change, pretty much everyone understands, that climate is the long-term average of the weather. Most of understand, on principle, that one warm day, and one cold day, does not a trend make, or break. Yet, whenever the mercury dips, for a day, a week or a month, doubts about climate change resurface in paper, on the web and in casual conversation.

The tendency among scientists and the environmental community is to blame the climate ‘skeptics’. And they are playing a part. Just look at the ridiculous op-eds about ice ages and global cooling. The only redeeming value of the recent global cooling meme is that it provided a timely case study for my Global Climate System class o
n how climate science gets twisted in the press (balance quotes from scientists with quotes from skeptics, giving the impression of a debate; flaunt impressive sounding professional affiliations; exploit minor uncertainties in the science to cast doubt on the general, long-proven conclusions).

We can’t just blame the skeptics. In a few short years, our information culture has shifted from the morning paper and the nightly news to a 24 hour online and cable news and entertainment circus. Our impatience for information has elevated small fluctuations in the weather or the stock market or the polls to the level of breaking news.

The US presidential campaign is exhibit A in this circus. There has been plenty of air time and blog space to fill during those long gaps between the Democratic primaries. With no important events to discuss, the media and the followers of the election dissect every word in every speech given by the candidates and their surrogates like forensic scientists. The candidate’s use of a single word at a single event gets elevated to a scandal along the lines of Watergate. The candidates themselves are forced to respond to the faux scandals and upticks in daily tracking polls rather than the core issues.

This exact same phenomenon plagues the coverage of climate change. We're now analyzing the release of each month's global temperature data as if one month could provide some statistically meaningful insight on the long-term picture. These monthly episodes of CSI: Climate only lead to a sequence of confusing headlines and misguided op-eds. Remember February’s “Coldest winter since 2001” episode? It was followed by “Second warmest March in history”. Stay tuned for April.

Do we all need to stop and breathe a little bit?
Reporting and blogging the breaking climate news - whether last month's climate data or the results of a new scientific study - without providing context distracts us from the massive body of scientific evidence supporting climate change and the observed long-term warming trend (and seven years is not long-term!). It also sets unrealistic expectations that every month will set a temperature record, that every new study will conclude climate change is more dangerous than the last study did.

Just like the US Presidential campaign, we risk being led into arguments about minutia rather than a much-needed conversation about the great challenges that lie ahead.


There is an undeniable warming signal. The climate is warming and it will continue to warm long into the future unless we drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There is no reputable counter argument.

There is, however, also undeniable climate noise, variability in climate from year to year that has existed for time immemorial.
The noise matters to our lives. It is what we experience day to day, month to month. We need to pay attention to the noise. But you don’t listen for the noise when twisting a dial in search of a radio station. You listen for the signal.

If only we could use our impatience in talking about climate change, and apply it to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

11 comments:

Raven said...

"There is an undeniable warming signal. The climate is warming and it will continue to warm long into the future unless we drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There is no reputable counter argument."

Your are missing the point. The issue is not is whether some warming going on. The issue is should we care about it. The fact that 'weather' has been able to overwhelm the warming signal for over 7+ years suggests that this signal is not that strong and not likely to be a concern.

In fact, alarmists do not have one shread of real world evidence that supports their claim that warming is bad.

Simon Donner said...

Er... take a look at a global temperature chart from any of the datasets. The past decade has been warmer than previous decades. A headline that says "globe is coolest since 2001" or "warming has stopped" is taking a myopic view of the temperature data, by picking a recent peak in the "noise" and draw a trend line from that point.

"Bad" is a value judgment. If I had to provide a definition, it would "climatic conditions to which people and ecosystems are not properly adapted". There's volumes of real world evidence for just that.

Anonymous said...

"The past decade has been warmer than previous decades."

Tell that to the Romans. Or the dinosaurs.


It's great when 30 years of natural warming, a propaganda film riddled with errors and a few do-gooder profs is all it takes for $trillions of dollars of public policy decisions to be decided.

But it sucks to be starving in Africa so wealthy North Americans can practice their Gaia religion.

By the way, better buy some long underwear. We'll soon need it.

Raven said...

"Er... take a look at a global temperature chart from any of the datasets. The past decade has been warmer than previous decades."

So? The earth's climate does not change that much from year to year. If the current warming trend is a natural cycle then it would take 40+ years to get back to where it was in the 70s. Before that could happen we would expect to a long string of years with 'record' temperatures.

The only interesting question is what is the current trend. The current trend is flat or falling even though CO2 is increasing as fast as ever. It could be a blip due to weather or it could be a sign that the climate science community has grossly overstated the amount of warming.

"If I had to provide a definition, it would "climatic conditions to which people and ecosystems are not properly adapted". There's volumes of real world evidence for just that."

I have not seen any. Sure I have seen lots of unsubstaniated claims of casuality (such as the claim that the Katrina disaster was the result of AGW). Unsubstantited claims are not evidence nor are computer models.

On the other hand, the higher CO2 levels contribute to plant growth and improve agricultural productivity (this is a claim that is supported by real scientific experiments with real plants).

Simon Donner said...

I can't speak to your Katrina claim. No serious climate scientist would state that a particular storm or weather event is due to climate change. Weather and climate are multi-factorial. It is impossible to directly attribute a particular weather event to anthropogenic warming, or any particular climate forcing. So we can never with 100% confidence say that climate change, or sunspots, is to blame for a specific occurrence.

That's why we use statistic. We can look at how likely a weather event or some other climate "impact" would be with or without the human influence of the climate. There's an entire section on that in the IPCC report. One example: a 2004 Nature study found that a >90% chance that human influence has at least doubled the chance of the 2003 European heatwave happening (the one in which 30 000 people died; like Katrina, the human tragedy had as much to do with poor societal response to the event).

Simon Donner said...

The dinosaurs? C'mon.

Raven said...

From link

A number of scientists, including Trenberth, now believe that global warming is making hurricanes stronger. Trenberth said Katrina's ferocity was "definitely" affected by global warming."

Katrina was only a category 3 hurricaine went it hit landfall. As you said - it was failure of human systems rather than nature.

However, the 2003 heat wave in Europe was also a failure of human systems rather than nature. A similar heat wave in 2006 passed without notice because humans adapted. More information is here.

Also a warming world reduces the number of deaths due to cold.

You definition of 'bad' is based on the incorrect assumption that humans cannot adapt to the changes.

Simon Donner said...

Interesting points: "definitely affected by" (Trenberth) is very different from "the result of" (Raven). This is my point! No weather event is 100% due to human-induced warming or any other cause.

The European heatwave (2006 was not as strong as 2003) is an important example, as is Katrina, as the problem with assuming we're prepared for extreme events, regardless of their cause. In 2003, France did not have the adaptive / institutional capacity to prevent the deaths during the heat wave. The adaptive measure (a heat wave plan) came after the disaster.

If we're always reactive not proactive, climate change will be "bad". The WHO found that climate change may already play a part in 150,000 deaths and 5 million cases of illness per year ( for 2000).

Raven said...

"If we're always reactive not proactive, climate change will be "bad"."

I can't argue with that statement as written, however, I interpret it as a call for proactive adaptation rather than mitigation.

Unfortantely, the most AGW advocates focus exclusively dubious mitigation schemes that will accomplish nothing at great cost.

Here is a good example of how mitigation can actually cause more harm than adaptation.

From the link:

"The implications should be obvious: If a goal of climate policy is simply to "reduce emissions" then this goal clearly conflicts with efforts to eradicate malaria, which will inevitably lead to an increase in emissions. But if the goal is to modernize the global energy system -- including the developing the capacity to provide vast quantities of carbon-free energy, then there is no conflict here."

Anonymous said...

The historic temperature data sets are very doubtful at the very least. Especially the popular GISS one; where they keep "adjusting" the past record and making it cooler, (at least 55 times in recent years) most of these were without any reason or even reasonable justification that I can determine.

In the mean time it is stinking cold in North America, we could use some warming

bi -- Intl. J. Inact. said...

Yeah, there's no warming, there's warming but it's natural, there's warming and it's natural but it's not bad, there's warming and it's unnatural and it's bad but we can just "adapt" (i.e. Do Nothing).

Just the usual crop of talking points.

-- bi, International Journal of Inactivism