Tropical storm Ernesto and climate change (respectively) make landfall

Two news stories in recent days, despite their parallels, evoke differing public reactions. The first? Tropical storm Ernesto, having grazed Jamaica, lies off Central America.[ Jamaica braces for heavy rain as TS Ernesto nears; Tropical storm Ernesto swirls off Honduras coast.] The second? Published science statistically linking heat waves of recent years with climate change. See, for example, the article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Perception of climate change, by James Hansen, Makiko Sato, and Reto Ruedy; and Climate change is here – and worse than we thought, a Washington Post op-ed by James Hansen.

The former story has pretty much been treated simply as news, arousing little other than dispassionate reporting. By contrast, the latter has lit up the blogosphere and set social media atwitter.

Hurricanes develop and some make landfall every year. US readers are accustomed to the idea…it’s like one of those summer action movies we’ve seen in variants many times before. Satellite sensors pick up weather disturbances over the tropical Atlantic. Computer models show that intensification is likely as the storm is carried along by trade winds. As the storm nears Caribbean nations and the coastlines of the Americas, forecasts start estimating the location and timing of landfall, any last-minute changes in intensity, etc.

Uncertainty abounds. Where will the storm hit? Who will be affected? When? How, and for how long? How bad will it prove to be? Because of that uncertainty, the forecasts are continually compared with the actual observations. Forecasters look for discrepancies between the two and tweak their outlooks and public messages. Emergency managers and local officials reach out to the public deemed most likely in harm’s way and call for response to the forecasts…laying in supplies of fresh water and food for a few days, preparing for loss of electrical power for a similar period, closing storm shutters or boarding up windows, and/or evacuating to higher ground or inland wherever possible.

In many respects, the approach of climate change isn’t all that different from hurricane landfall. Think about it. Satellite sensors, and surface instrumentation of many forms, signal the build-up of greenhouse gases. Basic physics and computer models suggest, absent some unknown feedback mechanism perhaps not yet captured by the models, a warming that may persist for centuries. They also suggest changes in patterns of the precipitation on which we crucially depend for water resources, food, and ecosystem services across a broad range. As in the hurricane case, uncertainty abounds. Who will be affected? On which continents and in what sub-regions? How seriously? Starting when? Policymakers and others are talking about counter-measures. Mitigation. Adaptation. Geo-engineering.

Oh…and readers of the climate-change stories also have that same sense of déjà vu that they felt with the hurricane narrative. In this latter case, as well as for those hurricanes, it seems as if we’ve been hearing the same stuff for years.

Given all these similarities, why do we respond so differently? Why does the former trigger action, while the latter prompts emotion? When we read the hurricane story, we ask the question, will this affect me? If the answer’s yes, we act. We take whatever measures we feel appropriate. If the answer’s no, we move on and simply check in from time to time to see how others we care about are faring. By contrast, it seems our response to the latest climate-change forecast tends to be more about sentiment. Many of us seem to feel less of a call to action than a need to “choose sides.” We treat these forecasts as if they are part of a political or religious discussion and react accordingly. The emphasis seems to be on scoring debating points.

Psychologists, sociologists, and communication scholars have provided a range of perspectives on the reasons for this. They’ve got a lot of good ideas. If you’re interested in learning more, google names like Dan Kahan, Jon Krosnick,Tony Leiserowitz, Ed Maibach. We all could stand to take their perspectives more seriously.

A couple of additional, admittedly homespun, thoughts.

First, the hurricane discussions are for different storms…in 2012, for example, we’ve already experienced Albert, Beryl, Chris, Debby, Ernesto, Florence…and the season may be just getting underway. Go back over the years and you’ll find science, forecasts, warnings, and emergency response on hundreds of individual, distinct events. When it comes to hurricanes, we’ve had prior experience and we’ve had practice.

By contrast, all the climate change discussion, dating back a quarter century (or a century, depending on your age and perspective) has been about the same, singular , unprecedented (in historical experience, that is, versus geological experience…a lot of people like to quibble with this bit) event. The different predictions are not about different events. Take those IPCC reports we see every few years. They’re merely new, still-initial updates on the same, unfolding event. They are not disparate reports on separate climate-change-events-of-1990, 1995, 2001, 2007, and so on. We’ve had little or no opportunity for practice. We can’t make a statement, based on experience, that, say, “63% of the time, climate change forecasts over the past 100 centuries have verified…” or any such equivalent.

In this respect, the debate is more similar to a single so-called map discussion about a particular storm than anything else.

[The idea of weather map discussions might not be familiar to most readers. But throughout the history of meteorology, forecasters in a given weather service office or college classroom have assembled around the day’s weather map, the analysis of existing conditions, and maybe some computerized guidance about what was coming, and debated the likely development of weather for the day,  (or the office shift) for their local area. You don’t see live coverage of these on the news. For the most part, these discussions were, and are, hidden from public view. Depending on the office, the personalities involved, the particular day’s forecast, and the stakes, the discussions might be free of rancor, or, alternatively, hotly and vehemently argued. But these arguments weren’t, and aren’t, spilling over into the media. And the people in the debates know they’ll be proved right or wrong by events over the next 24 hours, and that tomorrow they’ll be back in the same room with each other, doing it all over again.]

So, when you and I read Jim Hansen’s statement to the effect that climate change is here now, and it’s worse than we’d thought, or we read the testimonies given by John Christy, Chris Fields, and others to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on August 1, perhaps we might entertain the idea it’s as if scientists were engaged in a climate-change “map discussion” and were occasionally stepping outside the room to give interviews or make statements to the media. If the same were to happen during daily weather map discussions, or if those weather map discussions were far more infrequent, we might find that weather discussions were similarly “controversial”…and what we’d expect from a storm would depend upon whomever we’ve heard from last. Alternatively, if we adopt this frame, we might find disagreement among scientists about climate change less disturbing, and find ourselves better able to live with it.

Here’s a second thought. Society isn’t preparing particularly well for either hurricanes or climate variability and change. Ideally, our coastal communities would be so resilient that the public could hunker down during hurricanes for the duration of the event, and then resume business-as-usual immediately following. Instead, nothing could be further from the reality. We’ve built on floodplains and in storm-surge zones. Our poorest populations live in ramshackle construction that won’t survive the high winds. Ironically, our richest populations build showcase homes with lots of glass and complex roof architectures that will fare no better. Our critical infrastructure…electricity and water and all the rest, as well as hospitals and schools and the like…are vulnerable. All too often, shelter-in-place is not a viable option, and we must resort to evacuations of massive scale and extent. As recent disaster experience has shown, recovery can take months, years, or – as the case in New Orleans – decades.

When it comes to climate, we’re hardly better off. We’ve tuned the success of our agriculture and the capacity of our infrastructure to a narrow range of climate conditions. Any departures from the norm lying outside this narrow range may lead to crop loss, wildland fires, water shortages and worse – and will tax our infrastructure beyond its design-capability. Our experience with cycles of flood and drought show also that they spawn extensive refugee populations, bringing pain, suffering, and years of political instability in their wake.

In closing, a third notion. In the case of hurricanes, even when damage is extensive and enduring, as in the case of Katrina, the most devastating impacts are confined locally. Most of the world’s peoples aren’t directly impacted. By contrast, in the case of climate change, although there’ll be regional differences, it appears the impacts will be more widespread. There will be little real prospect of moving to an unaffected area.

That’s true, news stories over the past couple of days of another landfall notwithstanding.  Despite the successful touchdown of the Mars Rover Curiosity, there’s little truth to the rumor that if this planet grows too hot, NASA can move us to a cooler one.

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3 Responses to Tropical storm Ernesto and climate change (respectively) make landfall

  1. Hansen would be a lot more credible if:
    • He wasn’t so shrill, verging on the hysterical.
    • He hadn’t been just as vociferous in the ’70’s – about global cooling.

  2. Pingback: A climate change forecast…and by analogy, yet. | Living on the Real World

  3. Rob P. says:

    John – what evidence is there that James Hansen was “just as vociferous” about global cooling in the 70s?

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