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Climate change isn't liberal or conservative: It's reality

Paul Douglas is a Minneapolis/St.Paul meteorologist. Meteorologists don't study the same things as climate scientists—remember, weather and climate are different things—but Douglas is a meteorologist who has taken the time to look at research published by climate scientists and listen to their expertise. Combined with the patterns he's seen in weather, that information has led Douglas to accept that climate change is real, and that it's something we need to be addressing.

Paul Douglas is also a conservative. In a recent guest blog post on Climate Progress, he explains why climate isn't (or, anyway, shouldn't be) a matter of political identity. We'll get back to that, but first I want to call attention to a really great analogy that Douglas uses to explain weather, climate, and the relationship between the two.

You can’t point to any one weather extreme and say “that’s climate change”. But a warmer atmosphere loads the dice, increasing the potential for historic spikes in temperature and more frequent and bizarre weather extremes. You can’t prove that any one of Barry Bond’s 762 home runs was sparked by (alleged) steroid use. But it did increase his “base state,” raising the overall odds of hitting a home run.

Mr. Douglas, I'm going to be stealing that analogy. (Don't worry, I credit!)

A few weeks ago, I linked you to the introduction from my new book, Before the Lights Go Out, where I argue that there are reasons for people to care about energy, even if they don't believe in climate change—and that we need to use those points of overlap to start making energy changes that everyone can agree on, even if we all don't agree on why we're changing.

But there's another, related, idea, which Paul Douglas' essay gets right to the heart of. Just like there's more than one reason to care about energy, there's also more than one way to care about climate. Concern for the environment—and for the impact changes to the environment could have on us—is not a concept that can only be expressed in the terms of lefty environmentalism.

You and I can think about the environment in very different ways. We can have very different identities, and disagree on lots of cultural and political issues. All of those things can be true—and, yet, we can still come to the same, basic conclusions about climate, risk, and what must be done. Here's Douglas' perspective:

I’m a Christian, and I can’t understand how people who profess to love and follow God roll their eyes when the subject of climate change comes up. Actions have consequences. Were we really put here to plunder the Earth, no questions asked? Isn’t that the definition of greed? In the Bible, Luke 16:2 says, “Man has been appointed as a steward for the management of God’s property, and ultimately he will give account for his stewardship.” Future generations will hold us responsible for today’s decisions.

This concept—Creation Care—is something that I've summed up as, "Your heavenly father wants you clean up after yourself." It's not a message that is going to make sense to everybody. But it's an important message, nonetheless, because it has the potential to reach people who might not otherwise see a place for themselves at this table.

Too often, both liberals and conservatives approach climate change as something that is tangled up in a lot of lifestyle, political, and cultural choices it has nothing to do with. Those assumptions lead the right to feel like they can't accept the reality of climate change without rejecting every other part of their identities and belief systems. Those same assumptions lead the left to spend way too much time preaching to choir—while being confused about why people outside the congregation aren't responding to their message.

That's why essays like Douglas' are so important. We look at the world in different ways. We come by our values for different reasons. But even though we might take different paths, we can come to some of the same places. Let's respect that. And let's have those conversations. Climate change is about facts, not ideologies. It's about risks that affect everyone. We need to do a better job of discussing climate change in a way that makes this clear. And that means reaching out to people with language and perspectives that they can identify with.

Read Paul Douglas' full post on Climate Progress.

Read more about energy, climate, and what we can do to make the message of climate science more universal in my book, Before the Lights Go Out.

Image: Weather, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from 66770481@N02's photostream

Canada's government muzzles scientists, stonewalls press queries about health, environment and climate

The Canadian Harper government's policy of not allowing government researchers to speak without approval and without being attended by political minders is in the news again. A series of speakers at an AAAS meeting told the international science community that climate, environmental and health research that calls government policy into question is routinely suppressed. Prof Andrew Weaver of U Victoria said, "The only information [the press] are given is that which the government wants, which will then allow a supporting of a particular agenda."

The allegation of "muzzling" came up at a session of the AAAS meeting to discuss the impact of a media protocol introduced by the Conservative government shortly after it was elected in 2008.

The protocol requires that all interview requests for scientists employed by the government must first be cleared by officials. A decision as to whether to allow the interview can take several days, which can prevent government scientists commenting on breaking news stories.

Sources say that requests are often refused and when interviews are granted, government media relations officials can and do ask for written questions to be submitted in advance and elect to sit in on the interview...

The Postmedia News journalist obtained documents relating to interview requests using Canada's equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act. She said the documents show interview requests move up what she describes as an "increasingly thick layer of media managers, media strategists, deputy ministers, then go up to the Privy Council Office, which decides 'yes' or 'no'".

Canadian government is 'muzzling its scientists (Thanks, DaveGroff!)

(Image: Frankenstein's Monster, gagged, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from kazvorpal's photostream)

What's causing Europe's cold snap?

One of the things that makes it difficult to understand weather, climate, and long-term climate changes is the fact that, when something noticeable happens, there's a good chance it's being caused by more than one thing. So, when you look at a weather phenomenon and ask, "Is this being caused by anthropogenic climate change?", there's several (technically correct) ways that question could be answered.

Take, for instance, the recent cold snap in Europe that's killed more than 300 people and dropped snow as far south as Libya. As Andrew Freedman explains on Climate Central, this particular bit of weather weirdness is being caused by natural variations in the air currents over the Arctic:

The Arctic Oscillation, or AO, is is a climate index that describes the characteristics of the atmospheric circulation over the Arctic, and a related index describes the circulation over the North Atlantic. Depending on whether it's in a "positive" or "negative" phase, the Arctic Oscillation can bring warmer or cooler than average wintertime conditions to the U.S. and Europe.

Right now the Arctic Oscillation is in a negative phase, which tends to favor colder than average weather in Europe and the U.S. Scientists don't fully understand what causes the Arctic Oscillation to switch from one phase to the other, which limits their ability to forecast these changes ahead of time beyond a week in advance.

But (and, ladies and gentlemen, this is a great big but) scientists have noted that the Arctic Oscillation has been behaving more strangely than usual for the last decade. In fact, Freedman points out that several record-breaking positive and negative oscillations have coincided with extreme weather events you probably took note of: December 2009's Snowpocalypse, February 2010's Snowmageddon, and April 2011's massive outbreak of tornadoes (which, thankfully, doesn't have a cutesy name associated with it).

And this is where the lines between "naturally occurring" and "anthropogenically caused" get blurred. Because this record-breaking decade of Arctic Oscillations has coincided with a record-breaking decade in loss of Arctic sea ice and there's good reason to suspect that the two might be related.

... in recent years there have been studies examining how the global warming-related loss of Arctic sea ice might affect winter weather patterns in the northern hemisphere. Some of this research shows that sea ice loss may favor winters with predominately negative phases of the Arctic Oscillation. One potential result of global warming, referred to as the "Arctic Paradox," is that sea ice loss can help warm the Arctic during the winter, while setting in motion a chain reaction of events that make winters colder than they otherwise would be in Europe and the U.S.

This actually gets even more complicated, because it also appears that AO can affect the amount of sea ice that melts in a given year, which can, in turn, affect what happens with the AO. For more information, check out:
An explainer from The National Snow and Ice Data Center
— A NASA explainer from a couple of years ago that talks about the relationships between climate change, AO, and cold weather.

Also, just so we're clear, the AO is not the same thing as the climate systems that could drive "abrupt climate change"—a possible scenario that served as the basis for the highly fictional movie "The Day After Tomorrow". You can read more on that at the Weather Underground blog.

WSJ's partisan approach to climate change vs. science

The Wall Street Journal published a letter expressing skepticism about anthropogenic climate change signed by a group of engineers, retired weathermen, and scientists from fields other than climate science.

In response, a much larger group of actual climate scientists signed onto a letter rebutting the first letter. The WSJ rejected it. Instead, the pre-eminent science journal Science, which is know for its rigor in treatments of science, published it, as "Climate change and the Integrity of Science" on January 27th, 2012.

(i) The planet is warming due to increased concentrations of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere. A snowy winter in Washington does not alter this fact.

(ii) Most of the increase in the concentration of these gases over the last century is due to human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

(iii) Natural causes always play a role in changing Earth's climate, but are now being overwhelmed by human-induced changes.

(iv) Warming the planet will cause many other climatic patterns to change at speeds unprecedented in modern times, including increasing rates of sea-level rise and alterations in the hydrologic cycle. Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide are making the oceans more acidic.

(v) The combination of these complex climate changes threatens coastal communities and cities, our food and water supplies, marine and freshwater ecosystems, forests, high mountain environments, and far more.

Two incontrovertible things: Anthropogenic Global Warming is Real, and the Wall Street Journal is Political Rag

What's up with the weather?

 

Yesterday evening, I stood at a bus stop in Minneapolis wearing no socks, no gloves, and no hat. The breeze was warm. The birds were singing. Clearly, something is deeply wrong here. In fact, 2012 has brought the warmest start to a January on record in the Twin Cities. We're also in the middle of a major drought, which, this time of year, means no snow on the ground.

All of that has consequences—just this morning Minnesota Public Radio was talking about the economic impact the drought has had on snowmobile-based tourism in this state. What everybody wants to know: Is this caused by climate change? Is this what it will be like next year, too?

That's really hard to say. Remember: The really solid stuff scientists can tell you about climate change comes from analysis of trends over decades—for instance, when you look at global temperature anomalies over 50 years and find that the last time the global mean monthly average was lower than the 20th century average was back in February 1985. That's because, while anthropogenic climate change exists, it's not the only thing influencing the local weather or the global climate. The climate system involves a lot of different phenomena, which act alone and together. We can see a pattern of warming that can be linked to rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. But there's other stuff going on, too, which affects year-to-year fluctuations within the decades-long pattern.

In this case, says Jeff Marsters on the Weather Underground blog, the abnormally high temperatures are related to oddities in the jet stream—air currents in Earth's atmosphere. And those oddities may, or may not, be the result of anthropogenic climate change.

The cause of this warm first half of winter is the most extreme configuration of the jet stream ever recorded, as measured by the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). The Arctic Oscillation (AO), and its close cousin, the North Atlantic Oscillation, are climate patterns in the Northern Hemisphere defined by fluctuations in the difference of sea-level pressure in the North Atlantic between the Icelandic Low and the Azores High. The AO and NAO have significant impacts on winter weather in North America and Europe--the AO and NAO affect the path, intensity, and shape of the jet stream, influencing where storms track and how strong these storms become. During December 2011, the NAO index was +2.52, which was the most extreme difference in pressure between Iceland and the Azores ever observed in December (records of the NAO go back to 1865.) The AO during December 2011 had its second most extreme December value on record, behind the equally unusual December of 2006. These positive AO/NAO conditions caused the Icelandic Low to draw a strong south-westerly flow of air over eastern North America, preventing Arctic air from plunging southward over the U.S. and Europe.

The December Arctic Oscillation index has fluctuated wildly over the past six years, with the two most extreme positive and two most extreme negative values on record. Unfortunately, we don't understand why the AO varies so much from winter to winter, nor why the AO has taken on such extreme configurations during four of the past six winters. Climate models are generally too crude to make skillful predictions on how human-caused climate change may be affecting the AO, or what might happen to the AO in the future. There is research linking an increase in solar activity and sunspots with the positive phase of the AO. Solar activity has increased sharply this winter compared to the past two winters, so perhaps we have seen a strong solar influence on the winter AO the past three winters. Arctic sea ice loss has been linked to the negative (cold) phase of the AO, like we observed the previous two winters. Those winters both had near-record low amounts of sunspot activity, so sea ice loss and low sunspot activity may have combined to bring a negative AO.

Image: Crazy (awesome) Minnesota Christmas weather, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from shilad's photostream. Please note the lack of snow, the fact that there is open water on Lake Harriet, the presence of ducks, and the lack of hat and gloves on that woman. This is not normal for Minnesota in December. 

 

Climate denier as Borat: what if Christopher Monckton was really a long-running Sacha Baron Cohen character?

Australian comedy-news program The Hamster Wheel covers archconservative British politician Christopher Monckton, 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, a Thatcherite climate denier, and former editor for The Sunday Telegraph and other right-wing papers. The Hamster Wheel decides that Monckton (who once advocated confining people with AIDS to lifetime quarantine) must actually be a long-running Sacha Baron Cohen ("Bruno," "Borat") character and makes a compelling case that this must be so.

The Hamster Wheel: Lord Monckton (Thanks, Fipi Lele!)

What Fukushima can teach us about coal pollution

Earlier this week, I told you about a new study tracking radioactive fallout from the nuclear power plant disaster in Fukushima, Japan.

Read the rest

Raw data on global temperatures now available

Raw climate data and global temperature records from the UK's Met Office (yes, the data that prompted hackers to break into the emails of climate scientists) is now publicly available for download. (Via New Scientist and Margie Kinney)