Thursday, December 17, 2015

Reflecting on our failure to appreciate the weather

Twenty years ago I came across a cartoon by Mike Keefe in the Denver Post that captured an attitude I had found all too pervasive among my fellow Americans: the attitude of entitlement and detached disregard for understanding how our global climate system operates.

It inspired me to write an essay describing my understanding of our planet’s climate system, and it was published in the November/December 1995 issue of the Humanist magazine. Rereading it recently, I noticed some minor errors but the basic story remains as accurate today as it was back then. Since anniversaries are a good time to reflect on history and how far we’ve come (or not), I wrote a twenty year reflection which the Humanist printed in their recent Nov/Dec 2015 issue.  This is a slightly altered version and I've included many links to further information.

I thank Mike for the permission to use his cartoon.

I think it’s worth recalling where our understanding of climate change was twenty years ago.  Though there were fewer media outlets back then, they were more objective and for the most part offered straightforward climate science information. After all, it’s not that tough a story to summarize, even if the details get devilishly difficult.

By ’95 we had learned that weather is the product of climate conditions and that Earth’s climate conditions fluctuated. We knew that CO2 and other greenhouse gases were a major regulator of those fluctuations.

At the same time we were also being forced to confront the reality that it was our own burning of fossil fuels and the machines behind our modern marvels and lavish lifestyles that were increasingly belching “gaseous insulation” into our atmosphere.

Back then we were thinking about the Keeling Curve, to my eyes, the mother of all hockey stick graphs. Consider for a moment that before the industrial revolution our global climate system had its CO2 regulator slowly fluctuating between about 180 ppm (parts per million) to 280 ppm. And I mean slowly, taking around fifty thousand years to go from trough to peak (±100 ppm), with profound changes from ice ages to temperate periods.

Around 1850 this gaseous regulator was around the prehistoric high at ±280 ppm, but by 1995, a lousy half century, this greenhouse gas regulator increased 80 clicks, up to 360 ppm. It has taken only twenty years to ratchet up another 40 clicks and bust through 400 ppm, which is setting up the Earth for a very hot future.

This added atmospheric insulation warms our climate system. Simple undeniable physics! This warming then forces the troposphere to hold more moisture.

I believe cartoonist Keefe’s storm clouds were a reminder of the increasing tempo of “rogue” weather events we had been witnessing. For instance, in the United States we had the great 1980 drought and heat wave that killed thousands; the wild 1982-83 season, with its El NiƱo-driven storms and floods; an ugly drought in Australia; and some crazy cyclone behavior in the Pacific. 1988 brought another massive and costly drought and heat wave, 1991 saw the Oakland Hills firestorm, and in 1992 category-five Hurricane Andrew hit the Atlantic, category four Iniki struck Hawaii, and the Pacific Ocean had its most powerful cyclone season in recorded history. The year ended with the colossal Nor’easter of ’92.  It was a reminder for all who were paying attention that global weather systems interact with each other and their cumulative energy is capable of extraordinary outbursts. For the next three years an amazing four extreme weather calamities hit the United States annually.

I like to think Keefe was mocking the studied avoidance found in growing numbers of citizens. The science was becoming clearer as to our impact on climate, with headlines of these events including phrases such as “wake up call.” 

Indeed, we were waking up to the fact that it was our own collective behavior and expectations driving this global problem; the escalating consumption we’d fallen in love with was the cancer that would continue raising our planet’s temperature. However, this dawning realization created a profound cognitive dissonance.
The stark historic reality was this: power down or radically alter our planet’s global climate system and the biosphere upon which we all depend. Yes, that meant consuming less and in smarter ways. It also meant burning less fossil fuels and making fewer babies.

Republican and libertarian players took advantage of the power of cognitive dissonance and created a network of right-wing think tanks and PR fronts. With hindsight it’s easy to see their long-term, two-pronged approach. First, there was the enlisting and cultivating of certain profit-focused evangelical interests to foster faith-based communities that were emotionally hostile towards evidence-based learning and rational constructive discourse. 

The other depended on orchestrating dirty tricks, creating scandals, and lying about the scientific evidence, along with misrepresentation of and personal attacks against scientists themselves.

Instead of promoting curiosity and an interest in learning about what was happening to our planet, they created an alternate universe of faux science that conformed to their ideology and to their political and business objectives. To hell with understanding observations and facts regarding our one and only Earth. The “merchants of doubt,” to borrow a phrase from Naomi Oreskes, became masters of deception and spin. For instance, after a record-smashing hot 1998, global surface temperatures plateaued and didn’t rise as fast as some expected.

By 2006 the spin masters started crying “no global warming!” with such insistence and wily finesse that they even got the scientific community all atwitter about an imaginary “global warming hiatus.”

It seemed like everyone forgot the unavoidable basics: It’s our planet’s atmospheric insulation doing the heavy lifting on this global warming thing.

The troposphere (Earth’s lowest layer of atmosphere) is huge and complex; heat is absorbed and moved around in myriad ways so it’s no surprise that scientists don’t have a perfect inventory of where every joule of heat is going. What matters is how atmospheric greenhouse gases are retaining heat, and that process scientists do understand—thoroughly. It doesn’t turn on and off; the “global warming hiatus” was an illusion from day one.

The question everyone should have been asking was: “Where did the surface heat go?” The answer turns out to be a combination of oceans and difficulties in deducing the “average” global surface temperature in the first place.

Another PR ringer is the soothing mantra that held some rational justification in the 1960s and ’70s, perhaps even in the ’80s, but has become increasingly disconnected from reality: “No single storm is proof of global warming.” The success of this bit of tactical misdirection has been astonishing and far-reaching. Even serious scientists glommed onto it. But it ignores the basic physical reality that weather is the tool of our climate and climate is dependent on the composition of the atmosphere.

Follow what I'm saying here? Climate is a heat and moisture distribution engine. Weather is the physical tool that does the work of distributing the sun’s heat and hot moisture-laden air masses that our equatorial belt is constantly churning out. 

It follows that no weather event is independent of that overarching warming of our weather-making engine. So, what’s up with the wishful avoidance?

Here we are on the verge of 2016 and Earth is experiencing it's warmest year in recorded history, extreme and destructive weather events continue breaking records yet we have business leaders, their politicians, PR masters along with their faithful who's self-interest demands that they ignore everything scientists and observations have to teach us about our one and only planet.

Humanity faces a make-or-break challenge: Will we grow up and get serious about our impacts upon this one and only, finite home of ours?  All the while, the beat goes on, the runway behind us get's longer and won't do us any good, and we can continue kidding ourselves but we'll never fool nature.

The ten year anniversary of An Essay Concerning Our Weather was a few month's after Hurricane Katrina and shoddy levee construction devastated New Orleans giving me an opportunity to revisit that essay in "Katrina and Rita in Context" November/December 2005 The Humanist.

Supporting information:

Global Warming: What We Knew in 82
In 1982, Mike MacCracken, then a senior researcher at Livermore Laboratory, gave a lecture at Sandia Labs on the subject of global climate change.

For Dr. Mike MacCracken's full lecture see:
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Watch the world change over the course of nearly three decades of satellite photography
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NOAA - Extreme Climate & Weather Events
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New report finds human-caused climate change increased the severity of many extreme events in 2014
November 5, 2015

Human activities, such as greenhouse gas emissions and land use, influenced specific extreme weather and climate events in 2014, including tropical cyclones in the central Pacific, heavy rainfall in Europe, drought in East Africa, and stifling heat waves in Australia, Asia, and South America, according to a new report released today. The report, “Explaining Extreme Events of 2014 from a Climate Perspective” published by the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, addresses the natural and human causes of individual extreme events from around the world in 2014, including Antarctica. NOAA scientists served as three of the five lead editors on the report.
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The State of the Climate 
is a collection of monthly summaries recapping climate-related occurrences on both a global and national scale.
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Since I did make those remarks about the Republican's tactical war on climate science I feel bound to include some further sources for information on that count: 

The Rise of the Religious Right in the Republican Party
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Dear Religious Right: The Republican Party Is Playing You For Fools 
By Allen Clifton | April 16, 2015
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Timeline: The Religious Right and the Republican Platform
By Lauren Feeney | August 31, 2012
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How the Religious Right Is Fueling Climate Change Denial
Radical religious activists promote anti-science bills, in part, because they also seek to undermine the teaching of evolution.
By Katherine Stewart / The Guardian / Nov 5, 2012
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New study reaffirms the link between conservative religious faith and climate change doubt
By Christ Mooney | May 29, 2015
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Leaked Heartland Institute documents pull back curtain on climate scepticism
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The Republican War on Science.
In The Republican War on Science, Chris Mooney tied together the disparate strands of the attack on science into a compelling and frightening account of our government’s increasing unwillingness to distinguish between legitimate research and ideologically driven pseudoscience.
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Conservatives Attack Scientific Findings About Why They Hate Science (Helping to Confirm the Science)
By Chris Mooney / AlterNet / May 29, 2012
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Republicans And The Trouble With Science
Posted Nov 20, 2012 by Gregory Ferenstein 
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Next battle in the war on science
The GOP Congress is ready to attack science agency funding in 2015.
By Maggie Severns / 11/27/14
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GOP insider: Religion destroyed my party
A veteran Republican says the religious right has taken over, and turned his party into anti-intellectual nuts
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Belief in biblical end-times stifling climate change action in U.S.: study
Eric Dolan | May 1, 2013
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Not Just the Koch Brothers: New Drexel Study Reveals Funders Behind the Climate Change Denial Effort
By: Alex McKechnie | December 20, 2013
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Republicans Are Attacking Climate Change Science by Comparing It to Religion
BY REBECCA LEBER March 29, 2015

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The Republican Noise Machine
by David Brock  | 2004
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Secrets of the conservative media machine
After mastering TV news and talk radio, conservatives lost control of their message online. That's about to change
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Dozens of organizations are funded by ExxonMobil 

and its foundations that work to spread climate denial. 

Interactive map makes exploring connections interesting, includes links for further details about each organization's funding and activities.
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Heritage Foundation
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The Fall of the Heritage Foundation and the Death of Republican Ideas
MOLLY BALL SEP 25, 2013 
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To end on a constructive note, I found this.  
Can't say that I'm familiar with them, but it looks like something worth sharing.

Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media
By Jessica Clark and Tracy Van Slyke
New Press, 2010
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In less than a decade, a new breed of networked progressive media—from Brave New Films to Talking Points Memo to Feministing and beyond—have informed and engaged millions. By harnessing a participatory media environment, they have succeeded in influencing political campaigns, public debates, and policymaking at unprecedented levels.

In Beyond the Echo Chamber, media experts Jessica Clark and Tracy Van Slyke tell the story of the recent rise of progressive media and lay out a clear, hard-hitting theory of ongoing impact. A vital strategic guide based on years of research and extensive interviews with key media players and new media experts ...

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