First Things First: Attention turned this week to the Mid-Atlantic snowstorms and how to understand (and misunderstand) them, and also to how the climate science community—namely the IPCC—might prevent mistakes in process and print that have harmed its reputation in recent months.
Three feet of snow have disabled the capital region. The federal government has been closed all week and still is today, Thursday. The political world is still shoveling it out (literally). This leaves two stories of consequence in the week’s spotlight—ones that always lurk in the background: How hard it is to communicate advanced climate science to policymakers and the public, and how hard it is to communicate basic climate science to policymakers and the public.
“Eyes + Snow = Science“: Scientific controversies and errors are increasingly giving political cover to policymakers who would rather not deal with the issue, for any available reason. And the snow has reminded everyone that climate is easy enough to dismiss even without recent black eyes to the scientific community.
Political culture generally won’t bear a chain of causality longer than two links. That’s why so much opportunistic rhetoric this week focused on either of these chains: Global warming equals no snow; or snow equals no global warming. Much of the country finds it politically expedient to anthropomorphize climate science into a certain familiar persona and then beat it like it’s a piñata. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) wrote over Twitter, “It’s going to keep snowing in DC until Al Gore cries ‘uncle.'” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) built an ice castle that he described as the former vice president’s new home. That’s a fine rhetorical approach for an audience that doesn’t know or care that climate change has nothing to do with Al Gore. Rush Limbaugh ridiculed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for announcing its new information service, Climate.gov, over teleconference rather than a live press conference, due to snow.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the energy committee, observed that the snow makes climate legislation more difficult politically.
In reality, climate change has a causality chain not of, say, two links but of n variables, where n=… oh, you get the point. And the warming, famously, is unequivocal.
What Comes Down Must Have Gone up: Warmer air holds more moisture. When the temperature drops below freezing, this increased moisture will produce more snow—in this case more than the region has ever recorded. Time‘s Bryan Walsh turns in a concise review. Dylan Ratigan of MSNBC caused a stir by talking about the snow and global warming in the same broadcast. The New York Times makes sure in a lead to reinforce the myth of “two sides” in the climate debate. For thoughtful explorations of the possible relationship between the historic snowstorms and global warming, check out Jeff Masters’ WunderBlog post, “Heavy snowfall in a warming world,” or the Washington Post‘s Capital Weather Gang.
One space to watch is Climate.gov, the NOAA-led initiative to provide various levels of information and responsiveness to Americans’ questions about global warming.
Opening the Book on ‘ClimateGate’: The Guardian has undertaken an important exercise, publishing a 30,000-word “manuscript” about the pilfered University of East Anglia climate e-mails. The publication leaves the matter an open book, inviting readers to contribute their own observations and insights. More on this initiative once I’ve finished reading it.
New Paneling?: The IPCC was created before the World Wide Web opened vast sources of scientific material to the public. It’s older than the post-cold war era. University of East Anglia professor Mike Hulme, a past IPCC participant, writes in Nature (sub. req.), “It is not feasible for one panel under sole ownership— that of the world’s governments, but operating under the delegated management of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) — to deliver an exhaustive ‘integrated’ assessment of all relevant climate-change knowledge.”
Critics of every persuasion are suggesting how the IPCC should prevent errors large and small, published and procedural, in its fifth assessment report. A collection of opinions in Nature recommend breaking the monolithic United Nations-sponsored edifice into three panels producing shorter, more regular reports; creating an organization akin to the International Atomic Energy Agency to conduct transparent scientific, regional, and policy assessments; protecting the layers of review in the current system; and opening the process up to Wikipedia-like community gardening.
Cryogenic Politics: The momentum for meaningful climate policy that grew for two years before Copenhagen has come largely to a halt domestically and internationally. The Center for Public Integrity’s Marianne Lavelle continues to track the scale of lobbying efforts in the climate arena. With the president’s original approach to climate legislation flailing, opponents are turning attention elsewhere. Lavelle finds “overt and covert” support for Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) resolution against EPA regulation of heat-trapping gases. The piece documents some activities of the farm, small business, and utility sectors.
The climate backlash continues in the states. California conservatives are pushing for a November referendum on the state’s first-in-the-nation climate law. Advocates have raised about $600,000 to pay staff to gather signatures. Gov. Jan Brewer of neighboring Arizona issued an executive order to drop her state’s participation in the Western Climate Initiative. In Utah, the House Natural Resources Committee last week approved a resolution that states, “[C]limate alarmists’ carbon dioxide-related global warming hypothesis is unable to account for the current downturn in global temperatures.” New York University’s Tyler Volk tried to persuade legislators there to follow the carbon.
The vocabulary of the international policy conversation is changing. “Legally Binding? It’s So 2009” boasts a ClimateWire story published at NYTimes.com. Negotiators surveyed by the news service suggest that more than a legally binding treaty what the community of nations needs to see is successful and demonstrable actions at home to curb pollution. Trevor Houser of the Peterson Institute for International Economics made the rounds this week with an analysis of nations’ commitments under the Copenhagen Accord.
It’s a Washington truism that if a campaign’s message doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker, it will lose. No one has ever managed to reduce global warming, let alone what to do about it, to a successful bumper sticker. And the archipelago of groups that self-identifies as the environmental movement is urged from friendly quarters to re-examine its path forward. Longtime environmental leader Gus Speth delivered the John H. Chaffee Memorial Lecture in January, saying, “The world needs a new environmentalism in America… America has run a 40-year experiment on whether mainstream environmentalism can succeed, and the results are now in.”
Trick Question, Tricky Answers: Last week I posed a query that I then thought about rigorously this weekend while shoveling about 1,000 cubic feet of snow off the driveway and street: “Have you personally experienced global warming? And how do you know that, exactly?”
The scientifically appropriate answer to first question is, “No.” It makes about as much sense as asking a much-talked-about rookie major league baseball player after a game if he or anyone can say with certainty that his pop fly to deep right field is a reliable index of his future 20-season career batting average.
On the other hand is the increasingly accepted argument, glibly paraphrased, “But come on.” Winter precipitation of increased intensity is predicted for this region. You evaluate the evidence as deeply as you think necessary, or have time for, and make the call.
A few readers did make the call. Alex Smith, who works for Radio Ecoshock in Vancouver, wrote in, “Here in Vancouver, Canada, we have a convoy of trucks hauling snow from the Coastal mountains to our local ski hill for the ‘green’ 2010 Winter Olympics. Turns out, we just had the warmest January on record. All our local snow melted, just weeks before the ski jump and snow board competitions.”
Stuart Pimm, the Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke University, wrote, “You HAVE to be kidding. Do you know what it costs to insure my home here in the Florida Keys? How hard is it to get property insurance? […] Yes, Virginia, there really is global warming. Just ask any insurance company — and those who pay them who live in the Keys.”
Yes, Virginia—and Maryland, and the District, and Delaware, and Tasmania…
Eric Roston is Senior Associate at the Nicholas Institute and author of The Carbon Age: How Life’s Core Element Has Become Civilization’s Greatest Threat. Prologue available at Grist. Chapter about Ginkgo biloba and climate change available at Conservation.