South Carolina’s ‘Disaster Tango’

Michael Tobis has a guest post up at ‘And Then There’s Physics,’ where he explores the debate over the latest extreme weather event, torrential rain experienced in South Carolina.

It’s a thoughtful post, unlike so much of what appears in that space, so let’s take it seriously and walk through the implications.

Tobis writes, “Even now, before the rivers have stopped rising, the usual Disaster Tango has ensued, with the dance partners partners each dancing to a different tune. The tunes were “climate change caused it” / “it has nothing to do with climate change”. This dance inevitably follows a severe weather event, especially in the USA. Little is achieved by it.”

That matches what I wrote in a recent post–“If recent past serves as example we will now see skeptics offering rainfall  records that show this storm is not the worst in record or even memory, charts of sea temperatures and winds that show no recent rise in temperature, etc. Alarmists will counter with pictures of the devastation and quotes.”

Tobis continues: “We should be looking at what science says, and using it to bring the conversation closer to reality. Instead, each side picks their own evidence and uses their favorite points as a cudgel. That may be how politics is done. But it’s not how we attain to a world that is informed by reality.”

That makes sense to me, although you can make the opposite case–that politics is the arena in which the decisions are made, so victory there may be more important. But overall I agree with Tobis.

However, what Tobis thinks is an avenue to escape the Disaster Tango looks very much to me like an unproved assertion serving as table stakes for participating in the discussion we would like to have. He quotes Kevin Trenberth as saying “The climate is changing: we have a new normal. The environment in which all weather events occur is not what it used to be. All storms, without exception, are different. Even if most of them look just like the ones we used to have, they are not the same. ” 

And with this I do not agree. Yet. If the world’s climate has changed in any significant way, nobody has shown it. And although I see potential changes arising from climate change in the future, it is just that–a future, and an uncertain one at that.

That’s not an avenue to escape the Disaster Tango–it’s a trap that would serve to ignore the breadth of opinion on climate change, rather than explore it.

As ATTP banned me from his site before I ever had the opportunity to participate there, I took my thoughts over to Tobis’ site, Only In It For The Gold. There I wrote,

“I read your post over at ATTP. I’ve never been allowed to comment there, a pre-emptive strike by ATTP that you might sympathize with.

There’s an apocryphal story about an English professor who spent his career trying to prove that the Iliad wasn’t written by Homer, but by another Greek with the same name.

There are elements of your post that remind me of that story. The first is Trenberth’s assertion that there is a new normal, that the climate has changed and that this change ‘infects’ every meteorological phenomenon.

As a Lukewarmer, I can be expected to challenge that assertion–and I do. We’ve had this conversation after every extreme weather event over the past 7 years, so why should rain in South Carolina be different?

I offer as example the assertion that the current California drought is ‘outside the norm.’ It is not. California has frequently had droughts of greater severity and duration than the current drought, some lasting for centuries. The same is true for Pakistani floods and Russian heatwaves. A combination of much higher populations and increased access to modern media is a better explanation of the ‘new normal’ than changes to the climate.

As skeptics (and we lukewarmers) frequently mention, there are no measurable changes in much of what you are writing about. There has been no change in global drought over the past 100 years. Heatwaves in France like the one that caused so much loss of life are called ‘canicules’ and have been documented for centuries. Storm intensity and frequency have if anything decreased in recent decades. Trends in flooding are very hard to capture, due to the structure of data capture efforts, but the fact that reports of intense flooding occur in areas with recent dramatic increases in population, which increases the number in harm’s way, do not help us understand if it is increasing or not.

If the new normal is the same as the old normal, we are like the professor attributing the Iliad to another Greek with the same name. Or to use a more recent line, ‘Meet the new boss–same as the old boss.'”

To which Tobis replied, “Are you saying the climate hasn’t changed? Or that the climate has changed, but coincidentally the distribution of severe events is exactly the same as before? Or that it’s the same except for the parts where it has gotten more benign?

If you have a story please stick to it.”

My counter-riposte was “Of course the climate has changed. It’s 0.8C warmer. But because so much of the warming has occurred in the Arctic, the rest of the world hasn’t seen dramatic temperature rises and hasn’t suffered notably different impacts. For every instance of extreme weather that has been associated with human contributions to global warming, there are clear examples of equivalent events in the same region.

Rising temperatures in the Arctic have clearly impacted the regional climate. Some of that tails down into the upper reaches of the Northern Hemisphere.

But globally? Globally the drought index hasn’t changed in the past 100 years. Storms really don’t seem to be getting ‘more intense’, pace Sandy and South Carolina. Here in Asia they don’t think so, anyhow.

I don’t honestly think we can say too many intelligent things about floods right now, given the state of data collection. Improved technology is bringing the news about events to us that we would not have recorded in the past. It is also working to lessen impacts, especially loss of life, which in the past, especially regarding floods, was just about the only metric recorded.

I think there’s a helluva story out there waiting to be told. I just don’t think we know the plotline yet.”

I’d like to discuss this more thoroughly. What is the base point for deciding we are living in a changed climate? What measurements should we use?


Before I close, I’d just like to note that my new book, “The Lukewarmer’s Way–Climate Change For The Rest Of Us” is now available in paperback.

You can get it from Amazon here.

It is also available from the publisher, Stairway Press here.


13 responses to “South Carolina’s ‘Disaster Tango’

  1. I guess we will have to wait and see if we get a more intelligent debate in 2016.

    Did you see the Sierra Club President discussing 97 % with that Cuban Senator? I kept waiting for the term “lapse rate” to pop up in their exchange, but they stayed at the food fight level.

    • Fernando, I agree. The Sierra Club apartchik looked like a typical ignorant jingoistic aparatchik, repeating the talking points. But so much more could have been done: A discussion of Sierra Club finances, how their highly paid executives do almost nothing for the environment. How nearly all money goes to politics and salaries. How unreliable scientific consensus actually is, how subject to change.

  2. Trenberth, in stating, “All storms, without exception, are different. Even if most of them look just like the ones we used to have, they are not the same. ”, proves he is delusional.

  3. “the rest of the world hasn’t seen dramatic temperature rises”


    “and hasn’t suffered notably different impacts”

    that emphatically does not follow.

    You are suffering from a basic confusion that many people have. It isn’t greenhouse gases -> global warming -> local changes. It is greenhouse gases -> local changes -> global warming.

    Every bit of the atmosphere is an a changed energy transfer environment. That’s the nub of Trenberth’s pitch, and it is unambiguosly true. We have a different climate, and the events we see are samples from a different statistical distribution.

    The question that seems to be at hand is first *whether the change is large enough* that we can notice on the ground in the extreme events record, and second, *whether that makes matters worse* insofar as disasters are concerned.

    Those conclusions don’t necessarily follow from what Trenberth says, but (as is so often the case with him and other serious scientists) his comment is being decontextualized and rather inappropriately trivialized and mocked. He is not saying, in the quote in question, that severe events have increased. He is saying, in the quote in question, that some scientists’, e.g., Hoerling’s approach to the question is wrong.

    Given that view, which to me seems rock solid, I’m trying to find a way to calm everybody down and look at the whole of the evidence. It’s intrinsically a difficult question. We all have our confirmation biases.

    I’m really not sure how it will come out, (again, excepting coastal flooding, which is obvious) which means it’s a good place for us to back off of our tribalism and take things calmly.

    It’s also an interesting question, but it’s only interesting insofar as we don’t descend back into the Disaster Tango again. Apparently some people love to hurl cherries at each other and don’t care about making the pie. I am not talking to them.

    • MT, a nice bean in an empty can, echoes Trenberth’s delusions pretty well.
      Evil human CO2 is really much worse than that good natural CO2 because Trenberth declares it so.
      The lack of any evidence of anything bad happening is actually evidence of a world wide apocalypse caused by that human CO2.
      So keep the funding coming to find those commies under the bed…. err investigate all sciencey the climate. Keep those breeders in the third world poor and in the dark, making authentic trinkets Trenberth can buy when he goes to climate conferences.

  4. Yes, speak to ATTP about the cherry throwing, will you? As for Trenberth, you may be right about what he says. But someone very focused on the political struggle for climate policy would say the same thing.

    And I wonder if someone focused solely on the scientific paradigm for viewing present day weather in the light of our influence on the climate would spend their time calling for RICO prosecutions.

    And that’s the dilemma. Many of the most noted (and according to you, notable) figures in the climate fight tell us to focus on the science while they play politics. Michael Mann does it. Kevin Trenberth does it. Stephen Schneider perhaps did it better than anyone. Wannabes like Lewandowsky, Cook and others dine out on it.

    It doesn’t invalidate the science. It does undermine it.

  5. Any ulterior motives Trenberth may or may not have had don’t enter into the approach I am trying to take. Trenberth is saying that it’s simply not scientifically valid to take a frequentist approach to testing a null hypothesis that is trivially rejected on the basis of physical arguments.

    We need quantitative arguments, not yes/no discriminations. I’ve been saying this forever. Yes/no discriminations drive tribalism. Quantitative arguments support reasoned discourse and sensible policy.


  6. Too bad you didn’t have Trenberth’s ear. What you say sounds logical.What he says sounds logical. But he’s poisoned the well. What can Trenberth say now that won’t be responded to by Republican mentions of the RICO letter?

    Doesn’t anyone here know how to play this game?

  7. I suppose frequentist approaches are inconvenient when the numbers you expect to see don’t exist. Far better to take something you can’t quantitate. Then you can make up any numbers you wish and declare yourself the winner.

  8. Additionally, I’m curious to know how all the bad events which didn’t happen are to be quantified. The droughts which weren’t. The hurricanes turned to storms. The floods which only trickled. The heatwaves that became lovely days etc. Who examines the non-disasters and asks how much worse they may have been if not for “climate change”?

  9. “Additionally, I’m curious to know how all the bad events which didn’t happen are to be quantified. The droughts which weren’t. The hurricanes turned to storms. The floods which only trickled.”

    Thank you DaveJR. This is precisely the correct question. But attribution as normally formulated is sterile – it’s the wrong tool for the job. However, I believe the question can be addressed systematically, and much better than it is being done in the usual sterile debate.

    Also I think it presents an opportunity to go beyond existing tribalism and think something through in common.

    • To get beyond the ‘tribalism’, first condemn the execrable Trenberth and gang for wanting to criminalize those who disagree. Otherwise you are just full of shit.

  10. From the USGS:

    Is this flood due to climate change?

    USGS research has shown no linkage between flooding (either increases or decreases) and the increase in greenhouse gases. Essentially, from USGS long-term streamgage data for sites across the country with no regulation or other changes to the watershed that could influence the streamflow, the data shows no systematic increases in flooding through time.

    A much bigger impact on flooding, though, is land use change. Without proper mitigation, urbanization of watersheds increases flooding. Moreover, encroachment into the floodplain by homes and businesses leads to greater economic losses and potential loss of life, with more encroachment leading to greater losses.

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