In a slightly more fun, casual story for your Sunday reading, an interesting wager has broken out in the blogosphere. In what he calls a Challenge to Climate Change Skeptics, Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com is offering a rather hefty wager to all takers based on … the weather. It came in response to another blogger who claimed that this summer seemed abnormally cool – referencing the “year without a summer” of 1816 – and an inference that this somehow meant global warming was so much horse hockey.
The rules of the challenge are as follows:
1. For each day that the high temperature in your hometown is at least 1 degree Fahrenheit above average, as listed by Weather Underground, you owe me $25. For each day that it is at least 1 degree Fahrenheit below average, I owe you $25.
2. The challenge proceeds in monthly intervals, with the first month being August. At the end of each month, we’ll tally up the winning and losing days and the loser writes the winner a check for the balance.
This got me to thinking, particularly since I was just remarking to a friend the other day that we had only had our air conditioning on once this summer. Mostly I attributed this to the somewhat greater amount of rain we’ve gotten this summer. I’m not talking flood on the plains, start building an ark rain here… just a bit more than usual. And when you have rain, you have clouds, so the days seem to have also been a bit cooler.
Since we’re talking about “summer” here, I decided to see how my hypothetical bet with Nate would be going thus far had we started the wager for my local area of Binghamton, New York at the start of summer on June 21. So let’s look at the historical charts of the actual high temperatures vs. the average highs for June and July, starting on the 21st and going through yesterday, July 18.
On 22 days, the high temperature was below the average. On six days it was higher. That means I’m up sixteen days on Nate and he thus far owes me four hundred bucks. Woo Hoo! Anybody want to hit the pub? Drinks are one me!
So you may be wondering why I haven’t already leaped in and taken Nate up on his foolish offer. I should fleece the sucker before he runs out of cash, right? No. Nate may be a political prognosticator of amazing talent, (he is) and a legendary scorer of baseball stats, but this bet is completely silly and there is no useful data to predict your odds. The historical temperature figures for my area on this date will show you that, during the period of time when accurate records are available, the highest high temperature was over 100 and the lowest high temperature was near freezing. It is, in short, a crap shoot. And statistics tell us you’d actually have a better shot at predicting your dice rolls in a real craps game than calling this one.
From what we can glean, the average temperatures on planet Earth have been slowly increasing for quite a while now, but we’re talking about geological time, not the number of summers you can remember. The amount of time we’ve had the technology required to keep accurate records doesn’t add up to a hummingbird’s heartbeat in terms of the spans involved here. And I do believe that the activities of man absolutely have some effect on the environment. When the first Neanderthal (or whoever it was) banged two rocks together and set fire to a pile of dried dung which would not have naturally burned on its own, we began affecting the atmosphere. If you go down to the beach and pee in the ocean, you will have raised the ocean levels and changed their chemistry. How much of an effect do we have and how does it balance against the natural changes which have been happening in the global climate since the planet formed? I don’t know. And I get rather annoyed with people who claim that they do know.
We now know that the orbit of the planet is not perfectly round and it changes in regular cycles from a more circular route to a more elliptical one, and back again. This seems to synch up with certain long term changes in the geological climate record. The Earth has experienced hothouse periods back when the dinosaurs were stomping around where there wasn’t a bit of polar ice in the arctic or antarctic. We’ve also apparently had at least one and possibly as many as three times when the entire planet became “snowball Earth” with the globe frozen over and life hanging on by a thread in the deep oceans and in cracks between ice sheets.
If you win a wager based on the daily high temperatures over a period of 30, 60 or 120 days and wave your winnings over your head, proclaiming that this somehow demonstrates that global warming is real or global warming is nonsense, you’re deluded. The biosphere is vastly complex and huge in scale. We’re still unable to accurately model it on a day to day basis, say nothing of what will happen in centuries or eons. As Lewis Black once quipped, “you know what meteorologist means in Latin? It means LIAR.”
Do I think we should reduce, as much as possible, the amount of crap we constantly dump into the air? I do. And I want us to cut down on pollution, landfills and all the rest. We are terrible stewards of our planet’s resources and we’re leaving quite a toxic mess behind us as we go. Do I think we know exactly what’s going on with the climate and exactly what effect we’re having on it? I do not. I don’t think we’re quite that smart yet. As for me, I’ll wait until they can reliably tell me on Tuesday whether or not I need to bring an umbrella when I go shopping on Friday. If you can manage that much, maybe then we’ll have a chat about what’s going to happen in two hundred years.