Is the climate changing? Does it matter? Here’s one way you and I can tell.

A couple of days ago, Judith Curry provided a signature-thoughtful post on her excellent blog, Climate Etc. Entitled U.S. Military and climate skeptics, it builds on a piece by Jules Boykoff that appeared in The Guardian.

Judith’s post, Boykoff’s article, and the comment string on both make interesting reading! One bottom line? The military/national security community think that climate change is real, that human beings are a major cause, and that climate change poses substantial risks to society. They’re acting on this intel!

To see why this matters, please indulge me in a brief personal story. It will prove relevant in the end.

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My parents were not among the early adopters of television. We didn’t have one in our household until the mid-1950’s when we were living in Pittsburgh. I was in eighth grade at the time.

But I’d been exposed to television much earlier. Both sets of my grandparents had televisions before my parents did. In fact, my mother’s father, when he was managing editor of the Greensboro Daily News, played a key role in bringing local television and original programming to North Carolina. His role was widely recognized. When he died, television stations across the state observed a moment of silence in his memory. My father’s family, though it didn’t play any such active/leadership role, bought a television early on. The reason?  to watch sports…and especially baseball.

Now television back then was broadcast by means of analog signals. It wasn’t available by cable, digitally, crystal-clear, in faithful color, the way it is today. The picture was black and white, and was contaminated with visual noise. Back in the day, we all called that noise “snow.” Why? Because it filled the screen with aimlessly dancing white specks…viewers saw everything as through a blizzard. You could slew your rabbit-ears antenna on the TV set or your rooftop antenna around and reduce the snow a bit, but you could never get rid of it entirely.

If you were watching Douglas Edwards, or Edward R. Murrow (names that’ll send younger blog readers either to Google or another website), delivering the evening news behind a desk, the snow didn’t matter much. But for a baseball game? Snow was deadly. Why? Because only one or two cameras covered the ball field, and from their vantage points, the baseball was about the size of one of the “snowflakes.” You could never be quite sure where the ball was.

But there was one technique that would get you pretty close.

You could watch the ballplayers.

At least one or two fielders would be running to the ball. Others would be covering the appropriate bag. The behavior of the batters and base-runners? That gave clues as well. Add it all up, and you knew where the ball had to be.

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That’s pretty much the way it is when you’re living on the real world, isn’t it? The virtual world? Television, the web, your smartphone, the IPad – everything’s digital, isn’t it? The signal sent is checked and rechecked, and matches the signal received. It’s not a perfectly faithful rendering – nothing ever is – but it’s close.

But, even in the year 2011, the real world remains a muddle. There’s noise. Confusion. Everything’s chaotic. The real geophysical world sports darkness, fog, snow, turbulence. Or maybe it’s blindingly bright. Hard to make out what’s going on. In the ecosystem? Predators disguise themselves as prey, and prey disguise themselves as predators. Camouflage is the rule. You’re a creature living in the snow? Chances are you’re white. Are you an ocean dweller? You’re dark viewed from above, and light from below. You’re a male, trying to attract that female? You likely have an exaggeration of some prized feature. Such misdirection is a way of life, the key to survival.

As for humans, we’re also complex and opaque, hard to read, aren’t we? We often mask our real thoughts and emotions. Perhaps at work we project confidence we don’t feel. Or at home we show repentance that might or might not be genuine. Our leaders frequently spend a lot of effort to portray themselves favorably . All of us do the same. It’s just more noticeable when those in the spotlight do it. Listen to a captain of industry describe his company? Everything may be rosy. But look at his insider-trading behavior, and that may tell a different story.

Ah, that’s the key. What do we do? That usually is a reliable guide to what we truly think. If you’re an Earth scientist – a ballplayer – great! Dive into all the data and the publications on climate change. Draw your own conclusions. And 98% of such scientists have been convinced that climate change is real, that humans are a major cause, that it poses serious risks to society.

Not a scientist? [Most of us, even scientists, are in this realm once we get outside our narrow specialty.] Then you (and I) hear rhetoric and debate, but only, as it were through the snow.

What should we do? Watch what the ballplayers do. Those business leaders in the energy sector? They’re diversifying, hedging their bets, managing the risks. Those in agribusiness? They’re diversifying their landholdings in different climate regimes around the world. The financiers and insurers? They’re doing due diligence on whether their borrowers or their policyholders face climate-change risks.

And as Judith Curry and Jules Boykoff point out, the military are acting on the science too. They’re not standing around, jawing and arguing endlessly about it. They’re identifying new trouble spots and points of vulnerability. They’re moving out.

While the patsies get distracted by the snow, you and I should watch what those in the know are doing.

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One Response to Is the climate changing? Does it matter? Here’s one way you and I can tell.

  1. Mike Kiparsky says:

    Well said. This metaphor deserves to be widely used.
    I would like to hear more about existing analysis of the proactive steps you describe towards the end, since I’m sure such responses are muddied by other things climate related (like expectations for carbon markets, desire for greenwashing) and unrelated (trends towards diversification and globalization more generically).
    I’d expect that it’s those with the mandate or interest to think long term who are responding most clearly to the climate signal (military, insurance companies), and would like to know how one would tease this element out.

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