Earlier this year, I attended a dinner at a local restaurant to celebrate a good friend’s 40th birthday.
My friend and I go to the same church, so there were several people I knew well at the event, but as is often the case, there were a few people who I knew only tangentially.
At the end, I needed to get back to the office quickly. As my wife and I were walking toward the exit, one of those tangential individuals stopped me.
“Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask you, what do you think about global warming?”
Hurriedly, I replied, “Well, it’s real. It’s probably not as bad as what some people have made it out to be, but it’s very real.”
A smirk came over his face, “You know the planet has been warming since the last ice age.”
A myriad of inappropriate and anti-social responses raced into my head. But in that split second, I had to remember that I have a very public position as a media meteorologist, that I was in a restaurant filled with both strangers and people from my church, that I was with my wife, and that I have two children to support.
I paused. Then I tried to explain briefly the Milankovich forcings (procession of equinoxes, planetary axial tilt, eccentricity of orbit). All while I am trying tactfully to leave the restuarant with with my wife.
He gave me a blank stare, I managed to excuse myself, and I escaped to the parking lot with my wife. She could tell I was upset.
In the general public sphere, this question is now equivalent to asking about politics. This person did not have any true interest in rationally discussing the subject. He just wanted to show off and provoke me. He almost succeeded.
Even so, my very patient wife had to listen to me vent frustrations as we continued to the car.
Hiding Behind The Bunkers
As a result, I rarely bring this subject up. I’m not the only one. Two trusted meteorology colleagues, one in Alabama, and one in Texas, don’t want to talk about it anymore either. Too much drama, too much shouting, too much name calling, too much chest thumping.
And those two disagree with my position on this issue.
So there is no doubt, I am with the mainstream scientific consensus as seen with the American Meteorological Society, the Royal Society of London, and the United States National Academies.
I try my best to understand where my colleagues are coming from on this issue, be respectful, and move on. Of course I wish they would change their minds, but I’m not going to be able to do it. Besides, they already catch hell on social media for their position.
Similarly, when I point out the mainstream position, I catch hell, too.
Peaking Over The Sides
But given my professional position, I suspect I have some responsibility to discuss it… at least occasionally. To be sure, no one tells me what to think, and no one tells me what to post.
There is a lot of strong evidence for anthropogenic global warming (AGW) out there, but one key observation convinced me: Observed warming in the last century in the Arctic is much greater than in the middle latitudes or the tropics.
Some background. While surface temperature is governed by several things, incoming solar energy and terrestrial infrared are the two dominant energy inputs. Terrestrial infrared in the atmosphere comes from many gases that are active in infrared part of the spectrum. Water vapor and carbon dioxide are the biggest players there. Infrared active gases have a more popular name: greenhouse gases.
It follows that in the Arctic, where there is so little solar to begin with, the infrared part of that temperature equation is more important. The input from greenhouse gases yields a bigger warming result because there is less solar input. This is precisely what has been observed.
The Arctic warming has already started to melt the permafrost there. In fact, the permafrost is melting so quickly, that new engineering structures, called thermosiphons, have been put in place to keep the temperature of the ground low enough to prevent older structural foundations from failing as the ground thaws.
Additionally, when observed at the decadal time scale, the multi-annual ice in the Arctic Ocean and the glacial ice on the Arctic land areas continues to melt away.
The Antarctic ice? The seasonal sea ice is up, yes. But the amount of multi-annual, continental ice continues to trend downward. Melting continental ice (e.g. glacier) causes sea level rise; seasonal sea ice does not.
And come on, those attempting to equate the two poles ought to know better. The Arctic is an ocean surrounded by land. The Antarctic is a massive continent surrounded by water. The Antarctic is much colder to begin with, leading to a stronger circumpolar vortex than the Arctic, making it harder for warm air to penetrate poleward.
Plus, there are geopolitical and strategic issues that go with more open water in the Arctic Ocean. Those issues are notably absent at the South Pole.
The First Order
Having said that, my motivation is to concentrate on the most direct effects of AGW. Call them first order effects. Sea level rise is the most obvious. Coastal communities will have to make adjustments. Perhaps not right now, but certainly in the coming decades. Norfolk is already starting to see the genesis of this.
The occurrence of high-imapct (i.e. extreme) weather is a second order effect, one that needs a little more help to demonstrate causality. There is reasonably good evidence that damaging weather events will become more frequent in the coming decades. However, it is important to remember that this is also a function of increased global population and the expansion of housing and infrastructure.
Attribution, or the attempt to link AGW to a specific weather event, is still a thorny issue. As the folks at NCAR (National Center for Atmospheric Research) have described in a Major League Baseball analogy, no single event can be attributed directly to AGW, just like no single home run in the ’90s could be attributed to steroid use. But there is new work being done in that arena.
I spoke with Heidi Cullen at Climate Central about it earlier this year. She and her colleagues are working on a project with the University of Oxford in an attempt to determine immediately if a specific weather event was influenced by AGW.
Whether their results reveal statistical or physical relationships is still in question. And to be sure, their work will be highly scrutinized, but it is important to make the effort.
When I think of my colleagues who are skeptical of the mainstream position, I also wonder if their distaste for the way the subject is covered factors into their decision. Mike Smith, a veteran severe weather meteorologist, posted somewhat sarcastically in May: Global Warming: Is There Anything It Can’t Do?
Regrettably, his next statement deteriorates into a snide political remark, but his point is an important one. Too many stories are now showing up that are taking the solid data and extrapolating it toward unsupportable conclusions. While I understand the need to illustrate the risks involved with a warming planet, such extrapolations are counterproductive.
* * *
Whether or not any of the emerging science can change minds remains to be seen. More than ever, I am convinced that the deep and unyielding culture and identity of individuals will be difficult obstacles to overcome on this issue. But mine is not a new thought.
Max Planck, one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, famously stated, “A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
A recent study by The Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School is telling:
The graph is one of many from Dan Kahan’s entries at Yale. Thanks to Chris Mooney for directing me to his work.
So, no. I don’t blame some meteorologists for walking away from it. Especially those of us on the airwaves. The last thing we want to do is alienate an audience.
The Gore Problem
While there has probably always been some difference of opinion on this issue along political lines, I cannot help but believe Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, worsened the polarization.
Because he was a highly visible Democratic politician, fair or not, his movie created an opportunity to further division.
Consider a PBS Frontline episode which aired just before the 2012 elections. The episode highlighted the reasons for the change in public opinion on AGW.
In one sit down interview, Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute states, “From my perspective, Al Gore was the perfect proponent and leader of the global warming alarmists, because he’s very politically divisive and controversal.”
James Taylor, a Senior Fellow at The Heartland Institute added, “I think Al Gore was probably the best thing that could happen to global warming skeptics.”
These were sit down interviews, not sound bites grabbed while these individuals were trying to escape into a moving car. You can find the above quotes about 7:20 into the program.
The rise of polarized cable news and echo chamber blogs only reinforce the division and put us in our current situation.
Certainly, you will find those on the political left who blame every single bad weather event on AGW. They are not helping either.
But unless the planet unexpectedly undergoes a sustained cooling trend over the next 20 years, the climate wars will not go away.
Ashes, ashes, all fall down.
Just this week, the United States and China appear to have agreed on a carbon emissions reduction agreement. Initially, that sounds like a very big deal. It will be interesting to see what develops.