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.