Hurricane Sandy and the Climate Hens

Image courtesy of NASA, used under Creative Commons

Hurricane Sandy is one for the record books in a number of senses, and as New York and the world struggle to grapple with its enormity, some discussion has turned to climate change. A topic that has been damningly absent from discussion in the U.S. Presidential election.

It is inevitable that when anyone anywhere tries to talk about climate change in relation to things in the here and now rather than some murky, distant future, a particular group descends to cluck their tongues and admonish everyone that climate change can’t be tied to any individual event (a proposition that is not true, and grows increasingly less defensible as the field of fractional attribution matures). This group includes many who also fall into the camp of those who style themselves as non-partisans or above the “tribal” nature of climate debates. The parallels with Jay Rosen’s larger media critique of the View from Nowhere have been noted by Michael Tobis among others.

Dave Roberts has a thoughtful piece about this phenomenon. He refers to this group as climate “scolds” in contrast to climate hawks (and yes, I do have my own problems with the latter moniker). And while I do think that “scold” captures a lot of the flavor of the group Roberts is describing, I think the hawk vs. “___” setup favors a different term for the group: climate hens.

Image courtesy of Flickr user “Ann Blair”, used under Creative Commons

Climate hens by and large acknowledge the human perturbation of the climate system. But they are very, very hesitant to highlight (or are even downright resistant to) the idea that humans are shaping the present climate in ways that are affecting the public now. This may be because it doesn’t jibe with what they learned about climate years ago. It may be because they view erring on the side of making climate change seem more serious than it is to be as bad or worse than denying that it’s a problem. It may be because they don’t really understand climate science very well- Eric Berger and Roger Pielke Jr., for instance, are two climate hens that have displayed a remarkable ignorance about basic aspects of climate science pertaining to natural variability in a warming world. (Pielke Jr. is also infamous for playing bait and switch by turning conversations about human contribution to extreme events into discussions about an economic signal in normalized disaster losses.) Whatever the reason, climate hens are just plain uncomfortable with people attempting to tie extreme events to our increasing influence on the planet’s climate.

Roberts points out, correctly and convincingly, that the climate hens are clucking about a problem that doesn’t really exist- at least not the one that they’re ostensibly worried about. When the general public sees something like the record US heat, the summer drought, or a hurricane like Sandy, and they start asking about global warming, they don’t really want a belabored lecture on fractional attribution or paleoclimatic precedents that the climate hens think should determine the answer. What the public is looking for is some way to connect this thing- that scientists are telling them is real and a real problem- to their own experiences of the world. That’s what we humans do. Climate hens are, by mistake or by design, frustrating one of the best avenues of facilitating public recognition of climate change as a problem they need to take seriously. Roberts frames it this way:

That’s the key missing ingredient on climate change: not a technical understanding of stochastic modeling, forensic attribution, and degrees of probability, but a visceral, more-than-intellectual sense of what climate change means. Most people simply lack a social and ethical context for it, so they end up jamming it into other, more familiar contexts (“big government,” “environmental problem,” “liberal special interest group”).

A storm like Sandy provides an opportunity for those who understand climate change to help construct that context. It provides a set of experiences — a set of images, sounds, smells, feelings, experiences — that can inscribe climate change with the cultural resonance it lacks. That’s what persuades and motivates people: not the clinical language of science, but experiences and emotions and associations. Of course communicating scientific facts is important too, but it’s not the primary need, nor the standard by which other communications should be judged. What scolds often do is interpret the language of emotion and association through the filter of science. That’s neither helpful nor admirable.

And this perspective has supporters amongst those studying climate communication. Elke Weber (2010) makes this point:

Behavioral research over the past 30 years strongly suggests that attention-catching and emotionally engaging informational interventions may be required to engender the public concern necessary for individual or collective action in response to climate change… To the extent that time-delayed consequences of our actions do not attract the attention or generate the concern ex-ante that they would seem to warrant ex-post, behavioral research provides some corrective actions. The concretization of future events and moving them closer in time and space seem to hold promise as interventions that will raise visceral concern.

The science of tropical cyclogenesis in a warming world is undoubtedly complex and uncertain- a point I’ve been making for years. But when the public starts asking questions about climate after an event like Hurricane Sandy, they aren’t looking for navel-gazing about ensembles of modeling runs, wind shear, and overwash sediment coring. They are asking for a way to connect something they keep hearing they are supposed to care about to things they already do. The proper response to such questions is not, as the climate hens would have it, to shut them down and turn them away. And it should go without saying that nor is it a reason to overstate the connections between our increasingly heavy influence on the climate and extreme events like Hurricane Sandy. Rather, the appropriate response is to treat the questions for what they are: an invitation to talk about climate change in a way that is meaningful to a curious but decidedly lay public. Climate change means sea levels rising, it means storm surge increases, it means heavier precipitation events (Schaeffer et al., 2012; Sriver et al., 2012; Shepard et al., 2012; Min et al., 2011). If Hurricane Sandy makes these threats more concrete, if it moves them closer in time and space, if- in Roberts’ words- it provides “a set of images, sounds, smells, feelings, experiences”, we should absolutely be talking about it. And perhaps something good will come of this disaster. Clucking from the climate hens be damned.

References

  • Min, S.-K., X. Zhang, F. W. Zwiers, and G. C. Hegerl (2011), Human contribution to more-intense precipitation extremes, Nature, 470(7334), 378–381, doi:10.1038/nature09763.
  • Schaeffer, M., W. Hare, S. Rahmstorf, and M. Vermeer (2012), Long-term sea-level rise implied by 1.5 °C and 2 °C warming levels, Nature Climate Change, doi:10.1038/nclimate1584.
  • Shepard, C., V. Agostini, B. Gilmer, T. Allen, J. Stone, W. Brooks, and M. Beck (2012), Assessing future risk: quantifying the effects of sea level rise on storm surge risk for the southern shores of Long Island, New York, Natural Hazards, 60(2), 727–745, doi:10.1007/s11069-011-0046-8.
  • Sriver, R., N. Urban, R. Olson, and K. Keller (2012), Toward a physically plausible upper bound of sea-level rise projections, Climatic Change, 1–10, doi:10.1007/s10584-012-0610-6.
  • Weber, E. U. (2010), What shapes perceptions of climate change?, Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 1(3), 332–342, doi:10.1002/wcc.41.
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8 responses to “Hurricane Sandy and the Climate Hens

  1. “Clucking from the climate hens be damned”

    Superb post TB!

  2. Pielke Jr. today published in the WSJ, a denial that global warming is connected to hurricanes and other extreme weather: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204840504578089413659452702.html?mod=WSJ_article_comments#articleTabs%3Darticle

  3. Pingback: Hurricane Sandy and the Climate Hens | Planet3.0

  4. Yeah, and he clucked at Tamino’s briefly.

  5. In such aggressive articles (as above) criticizing the skeptics – “denier – denial”, never has references to recent IPCC special report – from this year (http://www.ipcc-wg2.gov/SREX/images/uploads/SREX-SPMbrochure_FINAL.pdf). It’s striking …

    … and there also we have such sentences:

    “The uncertainties in the historical tropical cyclone records, the incomplete understanding of the physical mechanisms linking tropical cyclone metrics to climate change, and the degree of tropical cyclone variability provide only low confidence for the attribution of any detectable changes in tropical cyclone activity to anthropogenic influences. ATTRIBUTION OF SINGLE EXTREME EVENTS TO ANTHROPOGENIC CLIMATE CHANGE IS CHALLENGING.”

    “Projected changes in climate extremes under different emissions scenarios generally do not strongly diverge in the coming two to three decades, but these signals are RELATIVELY SMALL COMPARED to natural climate variability over this time frame. Even the sign of projected changes in some climate extremes over this time frame is uncertain.”

    Uncertain …

    Maybe it’s because the work: “Assessing future risk: quantifying the effects of sea level rise on storm surge risk for the southern shores of Long Island, New York,” Shepard et al., is a comment by David A. Burton (it can be refer to all of the papers cited here, at sea level) :
    http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1204/1204.0146.pdf: “Tide gauge and satellite data indicate that the rate of sea level rise has not increased significantly in response to the last 3/4 century of CO2 emissions, so there is no reason to expect that it will do so in response to the next 3/4 century of CO2 emissions. The best prediction for sea level in the future is simply a linear projection of the history of sea level at the same location in the past. For Long Island, that is about 7-8 inches by 2080.”

    “But it turns out that all of that acceleration occurred in the first quarter of the 20th century (and the late 19th century). After 1925, their data showed a small deceleration in rate of sea level rise, rather than acceleration.”

    …or: Min, et al. (2011), Human contribution to more-intense precipitation extremes, has been criticized by R. Pielke Sr. http://pielkeclimatesci.wordpress.com/2011/02/17/comment-on-the-nature-paper-human-contribution-to-more-intense-precipitation-by-min-et-al-2011/ : „The Nature paper as well as media coverage is selective on attributing reasons for an increase in extreme precipitation even if this is a robust finding.”
    “Our study seems to indicate that the impact of large dams on extreme precipitation is clearly a function of surrounding mesoscale and land use conditions …”
    “The model study reported in Nature ignored this possibility.”

    Uncertain must be considered when we estimating risk – planning adaptive operations.

    It is worth to know that it is very likely for former warming 1.5-2 deg C appeared: less extreme – a more “equable”, climate (http://blog.chron.com/climateabyss/2011/12/dispatch-from-agu-an-equable-climate-curveball/) – is in fact, warming also be decrease gradients in the atmosphere, and perhaps the quantity and strength of natural weathering atmospheric blockages.

    It appears that a large number of strong extremes is linked to a specific temperature range – above and below, decreasing.

    I propose (to “reassure”) reflections on “the uncertain” by T. Knutson (2011): (http://yosemite.epa.gov/ee/epa/eerm.nsf/vwAN/EE-0566-103.pdf/$file/EE-0566-103.pdf).
    “First, it is possible that 21st century changes in tropical cyclones will be less potentially damaging than the scenarios outlined in the projections section.”
    “Alternatively, it is also possible that the reverse could be true in these cases, i.e., that transient climate sensitivity, future greenhouse gas concentrations, sea level rise, and so forth could be higher than expected, or even that storm tracks could shift systematically more toward major landfalling regions, in contrast to a number of current projections.”

    • Arkadiusz, are you aware that Tamino challenged Burton with actual facts on sea level rise, to which Burton said: ………..
      (absolute, complete, total silence)
      http://tamino.wordpress.com/2012/09/26/unnatural-hazards/

      Let’s not even go to Pielke Sr’s frequent inability to understand some of the science he supposedly should be an expert in (e.g. “GAME CHANGING PAPER!” – which in reality was another Wattsian failure).

  6. Pingback: Another Week of GW News, November 4, 2012 – A Few Things Ill Considered

  7. I think it’s about time we attributed a few flood events directly to warming – via the increased humidity. We’ve had a few floods in various parts of the world where it wouldn’t be difficult to calculate how much less rain would have fallen without the *average* 4% increase (leave aside the issue that places where floods have occurred are probably on the high, rather than the low side of the average).

    If 4% less rain falling during the rain event means that levees, dams or banks would not have overflowed at all – then that means that the *whole* of that flood is entirely and solely attributable to the increased atmospheric moisture. We can then move on to others where the calculation results in a less damaging flood. And then onto those where river levels are affected by rising sea levels. The adventurous could then deal with the challenge of recalculating all of that lot with a presumption that a wet region has higher than average increase in humidity. Sounds tedious, but there will be a few, very clear, attributions of 100% attribution to warming.

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