Recently, the world’s governments, and a bevy of non-governmental organizations (or NGO’s) concluded yet another two-week round of climate change negotiations in Cancun, Mexico.
The tone of the press coverage has been mixed. For example, a USA Today piece, running Monday, was a bit negative, seeing little progress. Juliet Eilperin, writing in the Washington Post on Sunday, was more sanguine. New York Times coverage fell somewhere in between.
Perhaps it helps to look at all this as somewhat analogous to meteorological and societal response to an landfalling hurricane, but in slow motion (actually by a factor of some1,000-10,000!).
With considerable over-simplification: the hurricane outlook/response process originates at NOAA’s Tropical Prediction Center (TPC). Before issuing a hurricane advisory, forecasters on shift have a “map discussion.” As a group (remember our discussion on the importance of eliminating individual blind spots?) they evaluate numerical model outputs and data, bouncing thoughts and ideas off other to reach consensus on the hurricane outlook. They then issue a hurricane advisory, setting in motion an intensive, structured coordination process. First, through a hurricane hotline, the TPC coordinates its forecasts with those of local NWS forecast offices, so that the public gets a consistent picture when they tap these different sources of information. Second, the TPC coordinates in a similar way internationally, so that weather services in countries across the Caribbean and the western Atlantic are also giving a consistent view. Finally, TPC coordinates with domestic emergency managers, who will be assessing the need for mobilizing any appropriate community-level response (keeping kids home from school, checking emergency power at hospitals, stormproofing homes, etc.).
Something similar is happening as scientists and the world’s peoples look ahead to a century of global warming. Think of the several years preceding each Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report as the map discussion. The reports themselves represent the warming advisories issued after the international coordination. Just as hurricane advisories are updated every few hours, the climate warming advisory is updated every few years. We’ve had four so far and a fifth is in preparation. According to international scientists, the warming trend has been intensifying as it nears, just as hurricanes sometimes do. The warnings have been progressively more pointed and specific as to the particulars: who will suffer the effects and in what ways.
Conferences such as Copenhagen, back at the close of 2009, and the Cancun conference just concluded, are the equivalent of the emergency manager teleconferences. What you and I read in the newspapers, or gather from internet and broadcast media coverage, loosely represent something like emergency declarations.
One extreme form of hurricane emergency response is the mass evacuation. In the United States, such evacuations can put a few million vehicles on the road. The statistics are interesting. Typically, when local and county officials and emergency managers issue such orders, about 50% of those told to evacuate do (fortunately, the figures for Katrina were substantially better). The other 50% in harm’s way decide, for a variety of reasons, to “ride it out.” Similarly, about 50% of the people who take to the road are people who have been specifically advised they are safe where they are, and urged to stay put. They flee nonetheless.
The response to forecasts of global warming seem to spread over this same wide range. Most people accept the forecasts, see human activity as a substantial cause, and believe that warming portends considerable risk. They’re taking a collection of actions, from reducing fossil fuel use, to searching for and using sources of renewable energy, and adopting a suite of adaptation measures (the equivalent of deploying the storm shutters, boarding up the windows, buying bottled water, or leaving town). Meanwhile, a sizeable minority of naysayers suggest we “ride it out.”
This may therefore be how it feels when things are going well. Forecasters are watching the imminent change closely. As new information comes in, they’re adjusting their assessment of risk. The word is getting out. Decision makers may not be in agreement (any more or less than they are on those hurricane emergency management coordination calls!) but they are listening to and talking with each other. They’re being left free to act as they see fit rather than being forced to conform to a single, top-down, command-and-control response. The public is attentive, not oblivious.
After the sturm und drang of Copenhagen, and all the negative press, perhaps the Obama administration is breathing a sigh of relief. Perhaps once again, they’re saying, “Yes, we Can(cun).”
The 17th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP17) is scheduled to be held in Durban, in the Union of South Africa, from November 28, 2011 to December 9, 2011.
 Speaking of speeded-up, if you’re interested in seeing an entire hurricane season in just a few minutes, the AMS blog, The Front Page, has posted such a clip.