Monday, August 29, 2011

Hurricanes/Heat = Global Warming, but Cold/Snow = Lunacy? How to Handle Isolated Weather Events When Discussing Climate Change?

As this is an issue that I have struggled with for some time now, I write this blog post to ask for advice, guidance, and the perspective of others - so please chime in with comments

It seems to be the bane of existence for those familiar with climate change science - the person who posts on Facebook or Twitter, or who boldly asserts in the classroom or office, "it was a record low in X city, Y state today - suuuurrreeee global warming is real. And there's been record snowfall to boot!" These types of misunderstandings of climate change science have resulted in a shift from "global warming" terminology to "global weirding" or "climate change" - a recognition that though the earth's overall temperature will increase over time, climatic conditions will be quite variable in any given location.   

Stephen Colbert has parodied this thought process quite well in the following video:

When people make comments that cold weather days must disprove global warming, Colbert quips, "Folks, that is simple observational research: whatever just happened is the only thing that is happening . . . [Currently] it is dark outside. Now based on this latest data, we can only assume that the sun has been destroyed. The world has plunged into total darkness. Soon all our crops will die and it's only a matter of time before the mole people emerge from the center of the earth to enslave us in forever night....thanks a lot Al Gore." 

Even though I agree with the silliness of such arguments, I cannot help but wonder what our responsibility is as educators, scientists, and other professionals in the field when it comes to isolated weather events that appear to support "ourposition.  Over the course of this summer I have seen numerous posts on Twitter and various news articles and blog posts from both environmental groups and professionals asserting what essentially sounds a lot like "See! Record heat! Climate change is real!" Also, I saw even more posts, and some articles, during recent Hurricane Irene that seemed to highlight this one hurricane event as proof of climate change. Don't get me wrong - I certainly trust the statistics on warming trends and increased hurricane frequency and intensity over the last few decades. There is little doubt that those trends reinforce and form part of the foundation of climate change science.  But my question is more about framing the issue. It is really hard for me to criticize someone for arguing that cold weather events disprove global warming, and then turn around and say that a single hurricane or a hot month of July support my "position." This is despite the fact that some may say "well sure, of course it is ok to do just that, because we are right. The data is on our side. So of course it is ok to point to these events as proof." That may very well be true, but something about that approach just doesn't feel right. I think it may be one of those arguments we should consider dropping so as not to allow the delivery of the message to disrupt or confuse the message itself. 

In the end, I believe that if those pointing out the reality of climate change do not want to sound exactly like those they criticize, it might be in our best interest to not use hyperbolic sounding arguments based upon isolated weather events. And trust me, this is hard for me - I like hyperbole.  But maybe we should stick to the whole story, and not just parts of it? What are your thoughts?

- Blake Hudson

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/environmental_law/2011/08/hurricanes-and-heat-global-warming-but-cold-and-snow-lunacy-how-to-handle-isolated-weather-events-wh.html

Climate Change, International, Physical Science, US | Permalink

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Comments

Hyperbole? Really? The only exaggerated statements I hear are those saying there is no evidence, no proof. None of these events is 'isolated' - that is the crux of climate change (and why the use of the term 'global warming' is so misleading). More extreme weather is what it is all about. It is why covered bridges in Vermont that have been around for hundreds of years and survived many significant flooding events, did NOT survived this one. It is the epitome of the definition of climate change. Records are being broken right, left and center. The sooner we believers get over our apparent self-confidence issues, the clearer will be the message. Let's not succumb to the deniers' insistence that science do what is has never been able to do - prove everything - otherwise we most certainly will lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Posted by: PH Worrall | Sep 1, 2011 12:49:06 PM

My suggestion would be to explain why the inclusion of positive feedbacks in the climate models is sound science.

And, I do have a question: how is the average temperature measured? This, to me, points out a danger of oversimplification as exemplified by Mr. Colbert’s example. You do not average night and day, but someone is taking temperature data and determining an average (and as you point out, each cold day should count as much as each hot day in that average).

Posted by: mahtso | Aug 30, 2011 12:26:35 PM

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