The link between climate change and extremes – and politics

On Christmas Eve, Justin Gillis published an interesting article in the New York Times entitled: Harsh Political Reality Slows Climate Studies Despite Extreme Year. He recounted weather’s large toll on life, property damage and business disruption in 2011. He interviewed scientists speaking to the link between climate warming and changes in the incidence of such events. He quoted them as saying more research funding would help clarify such linkages (and, by implication, the true costs of fossil fuels). He contrasted that with the hostility of some political leaders toward such research, and the straitened financial condition of the country generally. He noted that Congress had recently halted NOAA efforts to establish a National Climate Service to address these and other questions. Particularly sobering was his report that some Republican House members represented the plan as an attempt by a Democratic White House to start a “propaganda” arm on climate.

The events and this reportage raise concerns that merit our attention and thought. The top several? Letterman-style, let’s begin with the least consequential of these and work toward the more serious:

Number 3. [The main thrust of the NY Times piece] By failing to fund more research, we postpone the day scientists can answer the question about a particular event or year: “Did global warming have anything to do with it?”

In a narrow way, we can answer that question now. And the answer is…

Absolutely yes.

We know that the climatological averages and the embedded extremes are wholly intertwined…that changes in the averages are accompanied by changes in the mix and location and intensity of the extremes that make up those averages.

But we can’t say any more. Did global warming make the individual flood, or drought, or hurricane, or tornado, or winter storm more or less extreme? More or less intense? Shorter or longer in duration? Did global warming shift the timing or the location of the event? By how much, and in what direction?

We have almost no idea. And we won’t for a very long time. At best, we can look forward to a decade or so of statistical analyses and reanalyses which will shed glimmers of light on this and related questions.

Want an analogy? Think of the effort to find a cure for cancer. Or control plasma fusion. [My uncle is a plasma physicist. Forty years ago, when plasma physicists were first saying that thermonuclear power from controlled plasma fusion was just a few decades away, my uncle was saying, “don’t believe it. We’re not anywhere near that close.” Today, plasma physicists are still saying such a power source is just a few decades away. Some problems are just tough.]

Gillis highlights this question. And sure enough, we all want answers less tentative than today’s science can give. There’s an urgency. But any truly definitive answer is a long way off. When scientists are prioritizing research topics, in addition to “importance” they always ask the questions, “Is this problem ripe for solution? Are we ready to tackle this problem now?” We should continue research investments here. But large dollar amounts? There may be better returns for such investments elsewhere. Which brings us to

Number 2. By failing to establish a National Climate Service, we’re postponing the day when we can do something far more useful – identify particular locations and 2-3 week time windows embedded in the coming few seasons which are likely to hold special risk for extremes.

This is something we’d truly like to know. We’ve already seen that much of the improvement in weather forecasts and their beneficial use is attributable to weather forecasts that are consistent over a long time span. By itself, a tornado warning for an event ten minutes away is of limited value. But if that warning was preceded by a watch of several hours’ duration, the warning’s value grows. If the period of danger had been forecast several days in advance, and if successive forecasts had been consistent in pointing to the same location and period of risk throughout, then the watch and the warning become far more powerful. In this case the public is weather-ready – prepared, aware, and taking effective action.

Now, imagine extending that time horizon out a few weeks, or perhaps longer. That’s a capability America could enjoy. And we’re tantalizingly close.

Propaganda arm? Doesn’t sound so much like one, does it? So, it’s disappointing that Congress chose to nix formation of a National Climate Service. It’s also regrettable that NOAA and the administration attempted to carve out such a capability by reassigning existing resources rather than taking the tougher step of asking for additional funds. Much of the funding had been scheduled to come out of the hide of NOAA research, compromising progress on a variety of urgent problems – in resources and environmental protection as well as hazards. Budget shortfalls here will mean that knowledge needed for tomorrow’s challenges won’t be available.

This is a serious concern, but it’s dwarfed by

Number 1. The politicization of this science reminds us that the politicization of all science is feasible. It’s hard to foresee the full consequences of new knowledge. But it’s almost always possible to anticipate some of the implications. There will be benefits (and usually some costs). Those benefits will almost always fall unequally on winners and losers. So it has always been possible to politicize science. Think about the links between nuclear physics, nuclear weaponry, and the environmental consequences of nuclear power and the national political dialog during the Cold War.

Over time, however, we’ve become increasingly willing as a nation to use that politics to stunt or slow the research, as opposed to spur the development of policy to control it for the public good.

For a nation of only 300 million people aspiring to leadership in a 7-billion-person world, this is a fatal misstep.

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