On Jan. 1, the New York Times' libertarian/contrarian columnist John Tierney made a safe prediction: Sometime in 2008 probably many times, frankly a freak weather occurrence will happen and get blamed on global warming. As is his wont, Tierney put a theoretical construct behind his prediction as well:
"Todays interpreters of the weather are what social scientists call availability entrepreneurs: the activists, journalists and publicity-savvy scientists who selectively monitor the globe looking for newsworthy evidence of a new form of sinfulness, burning fossil fuels."
Is Tierney right? To hear him tell it, we're all kinda like Pip in Great Expectations: We seize upon the data that confirms what we want to see (devastating weather impacts linked to global warming) and ignore all the contradictory data (like this year's relatively quiet hurricane season).
I think there's some truth to what Tierney has to say but that insofar as he's right, it's for the wrong reasons. Let me explain.
What I don't like about Tierney's perspective is that it's used to whack those who take concerns about climate change seriously and Tierney isn't particularly careful about the data involved in the process. Consider the following paragraph that he uses to make his point:
"When the Arctic sea ice last year hit the lowest level ever recorded by satellites, it was big news and heralded as a sign that the whole planet was warming. When the Antarctic sea ice last year reached the highest level ever recorded by satellites, it was pretty much ignored. A large part of Antarctica has been cooling recently, but most coverage of that continent has focused on one small part that has warmed."
I'm really sick of seeing this business about Antarctic cooling provided without context. As the reliable bloggers at RealClimate have patiently explained, insofar as the Antarctic is cooling it's for complex reasons, but as time goes on global warming will surely make itself felt there as well.
Alas, Tierney slips in stuff like this repeatedly, which makes me less inclined to take his argument seriously. However, the basic point remains: There is a powerful human tendency to make too much of individual events about which we can't really generalize safely. That most emphatically applies to weather events and how they are fit into a climatic context by journalists and greens alike.
I have been endlessly disappointed with the way that some environmental advocates indefensibly exploit individual events to make a case about global warming. I don't know why the movement cannot better discipline its adherents, because I think this harms credibility. Big time. And it gives fodder to the Tierneys of the world.
However, Tierney fails to acknowledge something critically important: When it comes to wildfires, or hurricanes, or droughts, or many other weather related phenomena, there is strong published research suggesting that global warming ought to be changing these events in some way in the aggregate, even if we can't detect such changes in any individual occurrence (for basic statistical reasons). This research makes it more than fair to at least raise the subject of climate change when such events occur with the appropriate caveats, of course.
Moreover, by now we ought to have a baseline understanding that most aspects of weather will indeed be affected by the addition of huge amounts of additional heat to the Earth's system. It would be stunning, and downright a-physical, if nothing happened to weather as a result of global warming.
But in order to make his point, Tierney ignores both of these important aspects of the weather-climate connection. So my advice is this: If you've been guilty of crying "global warming" over spilled weather, let him scold you but not too too much. Heed the important part of his argument, ignore the rest, and become a more careful but no less concerned citizen of the planet going forward into this new year.
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