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Posted by on Jul 3, 2012 in Science & Technology | 9 comments

This Is What Global Warming Looks Like

Commenter Davidpsummers responds to my Garfield & Global Warming post from the other day:

The use of partisan tactics has damaged the public understanding of climate change. For example, while blaming a heat wave or other weather event on climate change helps “sell” the idea to the public, the fact is that climate change simply can’t be linked to any one weather event. The quote above, while not explicitly linking the two, strongly implies the connection by having one statement follow the other. This keeps backfiring. After all, if people accept this statement, then they will, say the next winter, accept a statement like “The low last night was -5 F. The proponents of global warming keep pushing their flawed theories”.

Or, to put it another way, if one side shortcuts the science to sell a position, it will (no matter how right they are) validate the other side to shortcut the science to sell their position.

Yes, I intended to strongly imply that there is a connection between the current heat wave and global warming. And yes, yes, I know that “linking individual weather events to climate change takes intensive study, complicated mathematics, computer models and lots of time.” But I don’t see that anything I said was a “partisan tactic.”

Fact is the U.S. broke 3,215 daily high temperature records in June. More significantly:

…since at least 1988, climate scientists have warned that climate change would bring, in general, increased heat waves, more droughts, more sudden downpours, more widespread wildfires and worsening storms. In the United States, those extremes are happening here and now. [And where I live in Middle Georgia, for the past decade of hot summers, cold winters and drought.]

So far this year, more than 2.1 million acres have burned in wildfires, more than 113 million people in the U.S. were in areas under extreme heat advisories last Friday, two-thirds of the country is experiencing drought, and earlier in June, deluges flooded Minnesota and Florida. …

“What we’re seeing really is a window into what global warming really looks like,” said Princeton University geosciences and international affairs professor Michael Oppenheimer. “It looks like heat. It looks like fires. It looks like this kind of environmental disasters.”

Oppenheimer said that on Thursday. That was before the East Coast was hit with triple-digit temperatures and before a derecho — an unusually strong, long-lived and large straight-line wind storm — blew through Chicago to Washington. The storm and its aftermath killed more than 20 people and left millions without electricity. Experts say it had energy readings five times that of normal thunderstorms.

To more specifically address summers’ concern that in winter we’ll use a cold spell to deny global warming, climate experts have explained that a consequence of global warming includes more extreme winters.

Like the birthers who will never believe Obama was born in Hawaii no matter what birth certificate you show them, some will never believe global warming is real. The problem is, they hold the rest of us hostage.

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  • I think the problem is that you talk about global warming and people think the entire planet is going to turn into Hawaii. In reality it means that extremes are going to get more extreme. Colder winters in some places, drier in others and wetter in some. Both hotter and colder with more and more powerful tornadoes. The carbon industry has the PR people and the money to control the conversation and they are telling people what they want to hear – nothing is going to change. Nothing new here – there is a long history of civilizations rising and falling. Of course in the past you may have messed up a region. Now we are messing up the entire planet.

  • zephyr

    A minority of people will be forever in denial. Smarter people will move on without them. The reality we are contending with necessarily transcends mere political nonsense, but when nonsense rears it’s head it needs to be seen for what it is. Sorry to say, I agree with Ron, we are messing up the planet. Looking the other way doesn’t mean it isn’t still happening.

  • davidpsummers

    It is, in fact, unwarranted to consider the post being referenced particularly partisan.

    I’m not sure I meant to call the post partisan. I think (and to be honest I don’t remember my thoughts at the time) I may have been thinking about how the use of anecdotal evidence (which partisan debates are full of) and the “capture” of the issue as a partisan one are linked (and simply did a very poor job of linking to the use of anecdotal evidence to partisanship rather than linking the article to partisanship).

    I have recently been thinking about the reasons for the failure to get the public to understand that the fact the world is getting warmer is one of the least controversial and have been convinced for some time that the use of the issue in partisan warfare is part of the reason.

    I will comment that in some places colder winters can, in fact, be a consequence of global warming. But it is true for the same reason that global warming can in produce cooler summers in some places. In the end anecdotes about hot summers leave you open to anecdotes about cold winters.

  • DaGoat

    There are two topics being intertwined here, one being partisan influences in discussion of global warming and the other is the use of anecdotes in the support or denial of global warming.

    The weather at any given point in time is not evidence for or against global warming. I agree with David’s point that if the weather on a given day is consistent with global warming and is used as evidence for global warming, the opposite must also be true, namely that when the weather is not consistent with global warming it can be used as evidence against global warming. The solution is to not use isolated weather events as evidence.

    Abetter example than the cold winters mentioned above might be hurricanes. there were many that tied Hurricane Katrina to global warming and predicted very severe hurricane seasons to come. The year following Katrina actually had a mild hurricane season. The single mild hurricane season was not evidence against global warming, however previous attempts to use Katrina as evidence encouraged people to also use the mild hurricane season as evidence. The solution is to resist using isolated weather events as evidence and insist on long term data.

    The second topic – partisanship – is an impediment to the discussion and understanding of global warming whether one is liberal or conservative. The issue is heavily partisan, and the most important factor in how someone feels about it is not generally based on scientific background or understanding, it’s based on political party. I don’t want to speak for David here, but it seems like he was saying in the usual partisan zeal to make an argument, people are tempted to disregard science and use anecdotes to make their position. This approach serves no one, since when the weather changes the opposing party will use that as anecdotal evidence as well, and it will have been legitimatized (wrongly) by the first use of anecdotal evidence. The solution is to decry use of anecdotal evidence no matter which side is using it.

  • zephyr

    String enough anecdotes (in this case weather events) together and pretty soon you have a trend. 😉

  • Thanks for the clarification David. I do see your point!

  • TLoman

    I think that individual events must be understood in the context of larger collections of events. When my uncle, who was a pack a day smoker for 30 years, was dying of lung cancer, everyone in the family assumed that his cancer resulted from his smoking. Why? Because we knew that heavy smoking is correlated in studies of large groups with lung cancer and other diseases. We were not certain that this was the cause (there are other causes of lung cancer) but the evidence based on large population studies made it highly likely. The same reasoning can be applied to extreme weather events and global warming. There are now multiple studies showing that the ratio of high temp records to low temp records at weather stations across North America (in two studies I know of) and throughout the world (in some other work) has risen in the past 30 years. Droughts are on the increase world-wide. The rate of a variety of weather related catastrophes (floods, droughts, damaging storms, etc.) has increased. In this context it is not unreasonable to attribute wildfires and extreme storms to global warming. Are we certain? No, but what we might call the event-context provides understanding of single events and makes this conclusion more probable.

  • The_Ohioan

    I was listening to Laura Ingram’s program on FOX radio today and she asked her guest (I didn’t catch the guests name or background) if the fact that there have been 40,000 heat related records broken this year if that meant something. His answer was “Of course not. There were also cold records broken”. Nothing here. Move along.

    And we wonder why people think global warming is a hoax? Not possible, not probable, but a hoax perpetrated by ??? with an interest of regulating extraction/manufacturing corporations out of business. It’s all a huge conspiracy, and by gum we’re wise to all those conspiracies.

  • davidpsummers

    Good summary by DaGoat.

    Yes, if you _systematically_ string anecdotes together in a way that accounts for sampling, etc. it means something. That process is, in fact, statistics. That is also very different than people jumping on this anecdote or that to try and prove global warming does, or does not, exist.

    As to why people are believing that global warming is an out-and-out hoax. I think this is because the issue has been caught up on partisanship. Remember, it is standard procedure to consider everything a partisan opponent says to be “lies”.

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