By 2013 NCS Intern
Q: Do you believe in climate disruption?
A: It Depends on the Weather
Human caused climate disruption is real and happening all around us. According to some, however, the conviction that climate disruption is indeed happening, well, depends on the weather.
As Professor Ed Maibach at George Mason University stated in an interview this past May, “People’s assessments of climate change are very susceptible to what they’ve recently experienced in the weather.”[i] It shouldn’t be this way. We ought to be smart enough to know that weather does not equal climate, but Professor Maibach is not alone in his assertion. Numerous studies conducted by the scientific community show that public opinion of human-caused climate disruption changes after recent extreme weather events.[ii]
Unless you live in a cave, you noticed the extreme weather variability between Spring 2012 and Spring 2013. Figure 1 shows the extreme dryness in Colorado in April 2012. In April 2013, however, residents experienced a completely different story as depicted in Figure 2. In 2012, most states in the country were gripped by drought, many experienced severe to anomalous levels of dryness.[iii] The drought, of course, contributed to the active fire season last year and such megafires as the High Park Fire near Fort Collins, Colorado and the Black Forest Fire near Colorado Springs.[iv]
Winter 2013 lingered well past its due-date and the average statewide snowmelt far exceeded that of 2012.[v] The cooler temperatures and continuing moisture in much of the country shouldn’t spark doubt and disbelief about human caused climate disruption. But they do.
Regardless of science, folks believe what’s happening outside their windows. Studies, projections, and modeling by the scientific community have all driven scientists to an overwhelming consensus that climate disruption is real and human caused, But if May is cold and rainy, or even if January is exceptionally snowy, many people start to doubt that global warming exists. According to a study published in January of 2013, 97.2% of scientists writing in peer-reviewed articles agreed that human caused climate disruption is real and happening.[vi] This level of agreement in the scientific community is almost unheard of, and the remaining minimal number of scientists who discount the validity of climate disruption is shrinking.[vii] Public opinion, however, is far more susceptible to disinformation surrounding natural weather variability. As John Cook and his team of researchers stated this past Spring, “There is a significant gap between public perception and reality, with 57% of the US public either disagreeing or unaware that scientists overwhelmingly agree that the earth is warming due to human activity.”[viii]
But let’s get back to the weather. What actually caused the wetter, colder spring and why did it sway public doubt about climate disruption?
Climate disruption interacts with environments in diverse and complex ways, causing heat and dryness in some places of the world while floods and colder temperatures occur in others. The flooding that East coasters experienced in the summer of 2013 is a perfect example. The warmer atmosphere now holds 4% more moisture. The greater energy stored in the hotter sky makes local weather events more severe. It all equals, as my boss Hunter Lovins so eloquently puts it, “Global Weirding.”
This variability demonstrates the clear misconception that the outdated term “global warming,” has caused. Many think climate disruption is only true if we get heat and dryness instead of the extreme and anomalous weather events that the globe is actually experiencing. Despite the statistics on the costs of violent weather that are steadily rising year by year, if their local weather, delivers something else, climate disruption must be false – Fox news says so.
Let’s look at the Modes of Climate Variability experienced on this planet. The widely recognized El Nino Southern Oscillation is a Mode of Climate Variability. The lesser-known Arctic Oscillation is another. This year the Arctic Oscillation swung far south and delivered the weather we experienced in Spring 2013.[ix]
The Modes of Climate Variability don’t go on break even in the age of climate disruption. But many people don’t know this. Most don’t even know what the Arctic Oscillation is, let alone its ability to drive a wetter and colder spring. Far less do they recognize that such normal climatic variations are now coupling with a climate more prone to extremes that can deliver really weird weather. This should not provide reason to contest the reality of human caused climate disruption, but as you now know, it does.
I’d like to end this with the comforting advice not to care if the general public agrees or disagrees with science, or to say that those who understand what is really happening can do things now to make it better. But global problems like climate disruption require all hands on deck. Niels Bohr famously said, “Predictions are risky, especially those about the future.” We know, however that humankind has already caused in .8°C warming, and locked in a further rise to 2°C, the upper “safe” boundary, according to scientists. According to the OECD, IMF, World Bank, and IEA, if world leaders do not act by as soon as 2017 we will lock in 6°C warming. That is probably not survivable by life as we now know it. So why isn’t local weather acting like it’s getting hotter? For most of recent history, the oceans have absorbed much of the added energy to earth’s systems. We’re starting to see the weather extremes, as the warming that has occurred couples with the growing variability. As Hunter Lovins says, “If you think what we’re seeing now is bad, we ain’t seen nothing yet.”
This means that scientists, journalists, and reporters must do a better job communicating science, to counter the disinformation that the deniers are spreading, and to overcome citizen’s tendency to believe what weather equals climate. Activists need to do a better job activating change. Politicians must do a better job trailblazing a better path. Everyone of us can do more. There can never be too many demanding a better world and to do this we all must understand what we, as a global community are facing.
[i] “Scientists Agree on Climate Change, Why Doesn’t the Public” National Public Radio. 2013. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=184845126 (accessed May 30, 2013).
[iii] “U.S. Drought Monitor.” National Drought Mitigation Center. 2012. http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/archive.html (accessed May 30, 2013).
[iv] Magill, Bobby. “Colorado’s state climatologist says the High Park Fire granted him the permission, courage to talk about climate change.” www.coloradoan.com. 2013. http://www.coloradoan.com/article/20130523/NEWS01/305230049?nclick_check=1 (accessed May 30, 2013).
[v] “Streamflow of 2012 – Water Yearly Summary.” United States Geologic Survey. http://waterwatch.usgs.gov/2012summary/#regional (accessed May 30, 2013).
[ix] “March Out Like a Lion– a Climate.gov Video.” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/news/march-out-lion%E2%80%94-climategov-video (accessed May 30, 2013).