Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Climate Change and Frankenstorm Sandy: "Dirty energy makes dirty weather"

I heard Cenk Uygur explain on Tuesday's The Young Turks (10/30/2012) that CNN had instructed its reporters not to use the term "Frankenstorm" which was in the press for a few days to describe the weather event associated with Hurricane Sandy. Because, you see, "Frankenstorm" is a reference to a human-created monster, and brave CNN was afraid that they would get criticism from conservatives if they suggested in any way that human activity could be any part of the cause of the Frankenstorm or its intensity.

Yet another reminder that the quality of our mainstream media is a wreck. And our badly wounded media compound the problem that our democratic system has coming to grips with the very real problem of climate change.

It's also a reminder about why a good science education for everyone who goes through the basic school system is also an important condition for a healthy democracy, an increasingly important one.

Jeff Tollefson (Hurricane Sandy spins up climate discussion Nature News 10/30/2012) gives an example of one of the practical difficulties honest scientists and commentators face on communication the real-world effects of climate change. Because climate science can say with a high degree of assurance how much the world is warming, what some of the basic results of that are, what effects can be expected in the future, and what contributes to the warming.

On the other hand, a dramatic event like Frankenstorm Sandy is more likely to convince people that climate change needs to be a higher political priority. But climate scientists can't say that this storm or the intensity of this storm, is definitely related to global warning. Tollefson:

What is the link to global warming?

Some scientists point out that we might expect to see more of these types of severe weather events in a warmer world — even if any one storm cannot be directly attributed to global warming. Earlier this month, a team at the Beijing Normal University in China found that big storm surges have increased in frequency since 1923, and that large-scale events are roughly twice as likely in warmer years than in colder ones. Others have talked about the potential that summer sea ice melt and increasingly open waters in the Arctic Ocean might be altering the flow of the jet stream that circles the Northern Hemisphere, leading to both hurricanes and the large winter storms that have hammered the northeast in recent years.

But the issue is far from settled, and climate change is not the only factor. For example, although sea surface temperatures are currently about 3 °C above average along the Atlantic coast, the expected increase due to global warming is just 0.6 °C, according to Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. So while the changing climate certainly plays a part, Trenberth says, there is plenty of space for natural variability.

Going forward, higher sea levels due to global warming are expected to compound the threat of more intense hurricanes. According to a modelling study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and Princeton University in New Jersey, published in February in Nature Climate Change, the combined effects of climatology and a 1-metre increase in sea levels could mean that 100-year surge events occur every 3–20 years by the end of the century.
On the other hand, people who want to be suckered will find a way to allow that to happen. If tribal allegiance to the Republican Party is a high priority to a person, they pretty much have to find a way to deny or minimize the problem of climate change. Demagogues like Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck will seize on a sentence like "the issue is far from settled, and climate change is not the only factor" to say aw, look, these here scientists ain't even sure themselves about this climate change nonsense.

People who want to be convinced by that mostly will be, and for reasons having nothing to do with science or intellectual integrity.

This does not mean, though, that we'll have to wait until four or five generations have much better science education before people can be comfortable with the current level of information. Because we make decision all the time based on less than 100% certain information. For all practical purposes, I can be 100% certain that there is a mug in front of me partially full of water. If I leave the mug in another room for a moment, I can be nearly certain that it's where I left it, although the thought might flicker through my head that somebody might have walked in and picked it up in the few seconds since I left it there because it's such a cool cup, or whatever.

And a great deal of public policy, especially the Big Issues, have to be approached with uncertain information. Getting a building permit from the city government may be fairly routine and uncertainties relevant to the decision to seek it or grant it can be minimized.

But when we're talking war, the chronic level of uncertainty is reflected in the famous saying that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. Or at least not 100% of it. However much dogmatic conservatives may abuse the concept of "unanticipated consequences" to oppose any program that might held some poor person somewhere, new policies on economics, budget management, business regulation, forestry management and many others have some level of uncertainty about them.

Then there are areas like foreign policy and economics in which multiple factors or at work, which can make diagnosing a problem ("Why do they hate us?") difficult and subject to various reasonable interpretations.

Weather is obviously the same way. If it weren't, the nightly weather forecasts would enjoy much higher prestige.

But if the climate is warming in a given county to a point that certain crops no longer grow there and old species of animals migrate out and new ones migrate in, farmers and hunters are certainly going to notice. And if that is happening all over the world in similar patterns, we can draw conclusions from that with a higher level of certainty than we ever could based on a single field or a single county.

Did climate change cause Frankenstorm Sandy to be more powerful than it would have been if the world climate had been in the state it was 20 years ago? Almost certainly, but it's impossible to know how much. Does the current trend of climate change mean that there will be more high-intensity storms? Yes, and we can say that with a much higher degree of certainty.

Oil corporations are investing some serious money based on the reality that Arctic ice is receding. They even want the American public to pony up funds for more icebreakers to help them do it. Rugged individualism and not needing the gubment only goes so far even for them, it seems. (Carol Wolf and Kasia Klimasinska, As the Arctic Opens for Oil, the Coast Guard Scrambles Bloomberg Businessweek 07/26/2012)

Al Gore's comments on the Frankenstorm and climate change in Statement on Hurricane Sandy 10/30/2012 are entirely sensible:

While the storm that drenched Nashville [in 2010] was not a tropical cyclone like Hurricane Sandy, both storms were strengthened by the climate crisis. Scientists tell us that by continually dumping 90 million tons of global warming pollution into the atmosphere every single day, we are altering the environment in which all storms develop. As the oceans and atmosphere continue to warm, storms are becoming more energetic and powerful. Hurricane Sandy, and the Nashville flood, were reminders of just that. Other climate-related catastrophes around the world have carried the same message to hundreds of millions.

Sandy was also affected by other symptoms of the climate crisis. As the hurricane approached the East Coast, it gathered strength from abnormally warm coastal waters. At the same time, Sandy's storm surge was worsened by a century of sea level rise. Scientists tell us that if we do not reduce our emissions, these problems will only grow worse.

Hurricane Sandy is a disturbing sign of things to come. We must heed this warning and act quickly to solve the climate crisis. Dirty energy makes dirty weather.
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"It is the logic of our times
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