#Frankenstorm and the Way We Talk About Climate Change

Andrew Revkin, in his Dot Earth blog for the New York Times, has been writing a lot over the past few days about the relation of global warming/climate change to the ferocious late-season appearance of #Frankenstorm Sandy, which flooded lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, tore up the Jersey shore, killed some 40 people in the US and left more than 7 million on the East Coast with no power for several days (not to mention the overlooked damage it wrought in the Caribbean before smashing into Delaware on Sunday). Many of his readers (including climate activist Dan Miller) accuse Revkin (who is a science journalist and not a professional scientist) of taking too cautious a tack on climate change generally and on human responsibility for the increase of North Atlantic storm activity in particular.

Miller compares Revkin’s slowness to point the finger at anthropogenic causes for our recent freak weather to the obtuseness of  NASA engineers who asked the wrong question of Thiokol, the corporation that built the O-ring that failed moments before the space shuttle Challenger blew up minutes after launch in January 1986:

NASA managers asked Thiokol engineers to first prove that the shuttle would blow up in order to scrub the launch.  Of course, that is the wrong question!  They should have asked for assurance that the flight would be safe in order to launch. Your piece on Hurricane Sandy (and others, like your response to Jim Hansen’s Op Ed on the increase in extremely hot summers) are from the point of view of the NASA managers deciding to launch the Challenger.  While there is a plethora of evidence suggesting that the path we are on is fraught with peril, you seem to want to focus on the uncertainties in the details of the evidence, rather than taking the prudent course.

Revkin has argued that there is ample evidence of regular periods of increased storm activity over the millennia and we may just be at the beginning of the next superstorm cycle. “While the echo of Frankenstein in that Twitter moniker can imply this is a human-created meteorological monster,” Revkin writes. “it’s just not that simple.” To Miller’s accusation that Revkin intends to imply that Sandy owed to “natural variation rather than man-made climate change (or at least it’s hard to tell the difference),”  Revkin says his “only ‘intent’ is to follow the science and assess where it leads in terms of policy and personal responses.”

I’m at least a little sympathetic to Revkin’s reluctance to put all his money on a horse he doesn’t believe in, despite Miller’s point that that’s the horse that carries a mandate for immediate political action to find an alternative to the unsustainable track post-modern civilization is on, a mandate we’re overdue to follow. Is Sandy evidence of a climate change? I have no idea. It sure looks like it, but am I qualified to say for sure? No.  Nor am I going to argue my suspicions here.  I can only continue trying to find out what Revkin and his qualified sources have to say and hope policy makers are following it as well and that the polity as a whole can function wisely and well enough to act on what science learns.

The attacks on Revkin’s skepticism have prompted some thoughtful posts from him about the delicacy of his position as a reporter on environmental science right now. He posted a particularly interesting piece on October 29, while Sandy was still raging: “On ‘Frankenstorms,’ Climate Science and ‘Reverse Tribalism’.” In it, he links to a paper by one of his correspondents, Robert Crowley, who argues that “knee-jerk” cautions from scientists and knowledgeable journalists like Revkin (all presumably in the same tribe) against interpreting any climate anomaly as positive evidence of  human-induced global warming are “either a conscious or unconscious reaction to public, media and congressional outcries and pressure that border on intimidation.” In other words, these knee-jerk disclaimers are at the service of another tribe–not the tribe of science but that of political interests antithetical to it.

For his part, Revkin addresses which “tribe” he belongs to and concludes that while he’s personally long been a member of the environmental activist tribe, as far as Dot Earth goes, he’s of another tribe at the same time:

But as a journalist, I grew into the habit of detaching my personal passions from my profession’s need to sort through arguments for some sense of bedrock. So I’m a member of the journalism tribe, as well. That hasn’t changed with my move to the Op-Ed side of the paper. My opinion is that reality matters, however inconvenient it may be.

Nevertheless, he makes explicit four points about his position on the human contribution to climate change:

1. The unerring buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is bound to come with regrets.

2. Many parts of the planet, from sub-Saharan Africa to the northeastern United States, are subject to extreme storms, superdroughts or other climate-related disruptions with or without a push from greenhouse gases. Greenhouse heating will worsen some extremes and is almost assuredly contributing to some (but not all) now.

3. Limiting harm from inevitable hard knocks that come with such disruptions is job one on a crowding, busy planet.

4. Working to shift from energy norms that come with large emissions of carbon dioxide is an imperative in this century (along with bringing energy by any smart means to the billions of people without reasonable sources now). But even a crash effort to blunt the greenhouse-gas buildup wouldn’t avert the need for step 3.

I strongly recommend reading Revkin’s posts on the subject, and as many of the links as you can stand, to get as full a picture of the discussion among people who think about and deal with climate change for a living. What are these cognoscenti saying about the human effect on climate and what we humans can realistically, feasibly and politically do about it? Is there really consensus among scientists that there is a strong correlation between human carbon consumption and global warming? Is there more doubt among them than the media (except for Fox news, of course) are reporting?  The answer, I think (though, of course, don’t just take my word for it), is that, while there may be less consensus among environmental scientists on every detail of climate change than there is among biologists on evolution, there is broad consensus that human behaviors are at least partly responsible for the rise in global surface temperatures of the last century and a half.  Revkin’s extremely cautious position is on the conservative end of the scale, but he doesn’t challenge that broad consensus.

As Revkin’s audience is comprised of many of these scientists, just reading the comments on his posts can be an education in itself. (Some of the most interesting are here, here and here. ) On the other hand, you might learn that the nonscientists among the public have no consensus at all. Take for example this reply to Revkin from a commenter calling himself “arrowrod” from Melbourne, Florida:

1. You don’t have the votes.
2. It is called green house gas for a reason: Plants grow better in a “enhanced” CO2 environment.
3. Warming the planet will allow the Antarctic, Siberia and Canada to be useful for growing populations.
4. You same elitists dug your heels in, delaying nuclear power plant construction.
5. You’re not that smart.
6. China and India want the “good” life. That means air conditioning, washing machines, hot water and flushing toilets.
7. I hate you credentialed, certified, elite, self appointed experts. You are lazy and only a very few of you are really smart.

What would we call the tribe old arrowrod represents?

PS: Mark Fischetti at Scientific American writes in a post titled Did Climate Change Cause Hurricane Sandy?

If you’ve followed the U.S. news and weather in the past 24 hours you have no doubt run across a journalist or blogger explaining why it’s difficult to say that climate change could be causing big storms like Sandy. Well, no doubt here: it is.

The hedge expressed by journalists is that many variables go into creating a big storm, so the size of Hurricane Sandy, or any specific storm, cannot be attributed to climate change. That’s true, and it’s based on good science. However, that statement does not mean that we cannot say that climate change is making storms bigger. It is doing just that—a statement also based on good science, and one that the insurance industry is embracing, by the way….

Scientists have long taken a similarly cautious stance, but more are starting to drop the caveat and link climate change directly to intense storms and other extreme weather events, such as the warm 2012 winter in the eastern U.S. and the frigid one in Europe at the same time. They are emboldened because researchers have gotten very good in the past decade at determining what affects the variables that create big storms. Hurricane Sandy got large because it wandered north along the U.S. coast, where ocean water is still warm this time of year, pumping energy into the swirling system. But it got even larger when a cold Jet Stream made a sharp dip southward from Canada down into the eastern U.S. The cold air, positioned against warm Atlantic air, added energy to the atmosphere and therefore to Sandy, just as it moved into that region, expanding the storm even further.

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One thought on “#Frankenstorm and the Way We Talk About Climate Change

  1. Pingback: Will the “Final” Revolution Be Started by Second Amendment Absolutists? | Tragic Farce

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