Separated and Unified: One Climate
Separated and Unified: One Climate
Revision Posted: 20130224
I want to revisit an article I wrote on Changing the Media Discussion on Climate and Extreme Weather. (Can someone explain why its “likes” have recently gone down?) A point from that article was that we have only one climate. However, when we go down the path to decide if an extreme event is “caused” by global warming, we make some distinction between a changed and unchanged climate. This tricks us into thinking that we have two coexisting climates, and that we are waiting for one to replace the other.
In the previous blogs on time (short time, long time, bridging time), I wrote about one of the steps of complex problem solving. That was first to break the problem into pieces, then to put those pieces back together in ways that are usable in constructing solution strategies. This is a process of deconstructing and reconstructing.
In the practice of the scientific method to investigate the Earth’s climate, scientists often deconstruct, or reduce, the observations to isolate simplified and understandable pieces. Though we know that these pieces are only part of a whole, our focus on these simplified pieces is intense. Often when we talk about new discoveries, it is the knowledge revealed by these deconstructions. We don’t place these pieces back into the whole. In fact, we sometimes forget that we have even done the deconstruction.
Now let’s return to that idea that we have only one climate. The fact of the matter is that we know that the climate is warming and that all extreme events occur in that warming climate. It is difficult to imagine the situation in which our environment has more heat, more energy, and more moisture, and the extreme event is unaffected (see here). So though the scientist has reasons to investigate and to quantify the effect that warming has had on an extreme event, that investigation does not mean that the event exists in one or another climate - a changed climate or an unchanged climate. We have only one climate, and that event occurred in that climate.
The practice of the scientific method has a powerful impact on how the scientific investigation of climate change is communicated. When the scientist poses questions about how global warming has changed an extreme event, the scientist’s isolation of the event is a technique of scientific investigation. The isolation allows focus to enable precise statements. Often, however, when either scientists or the general public talk about the results of their investigations, the focus falls naturally to isolated problems. We lose sight of the whole.
I will take the notion that the techniques and language of scientific investigation influence communication further. Climate is often defined as average weather. Climate is, therefore, a way to help us deal with the enormous complexity that we associate with weather; that is, we average. As we talk about weather and climate, we find easy language that suggests that the two are different in some fundamental way. We talk about influences of weather on climate and climate on weather. We forget that climate was defined in terms of weather and that that definition is part of the practice of science.
So the practice of science requires us to reduce the complex problem in order to produce pieces of knowledge. The publication of science in scientific journals requires us to describe and defend how we make this reduction. The journalistic reporting of science plucks some of these reduced problems out of the scientific literature into the public discussion. This process of reduction and reporting helps to fuel contentiousness in our collective conversations about climate, climate change, and what to do about it. We lose sight of whole – sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously.
The role of past cycles in the climate is one place where I often see this focus on pieces of the climate as if they were distinct and unrelated to what is going on today. The value of these cycles to the scientist is to study cause and effect. In many cases, this study focuses on carbon dioxide, and that focus substantiates the role of carbon dioxide as a regulator of Earth’s temperature and reveals that there are large shifts in atmospheric carbon dioxide. Right now, we are the cause of that large shift in carbon dioxide. The fact that there are previous periods when we were not the cause does not change the fact that our carbon dioxide will warm the planet. These past cycles are part of our one climate, and so are we.
Figure 1: Hudsonian Godwit (HUGO) chick sketch from Maria Coryell-Martin: Expeditionary Artist (from an entry Life Cycles and Climate).
Updated: 9:00 PM GMT on February 24, 2013
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A Bridge of Time
A Bridge of Time
In the previous two articles I have written about time: short time and long time. In this entry I want to build a bridge between short and long. By breaking the climate-change problem down by time, and then putting it back together, it helps to analyze the problem and promotes more effective strategies for addressing climate change. Long ago, I wrote a couple of blogs on climate-change problem solving and the role of time. These blogs discuss the need to break the problem down not only by time, but also by local and global and by rich and poor. (see also Lemos and Rood, 2010)
Rather than defining a long time by a characteristic of climate science, for example a measure of how long carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere, I defined a long time by human measures. The three measures were generational, work and retirement, and built infrastructure (see figure at the bottom). If I use a length of time that is familiar to people, climate-change is placed into a frame that makes it easier to address. Analyzing these measures of time more thoroughly brings a number of issues into focus.
First, built infrastructure – as planners and builders think about the storm drains, bridges, and roads that will serve us for the next fifty years, they have to take into account how the weather will behave. In the past engineers have simply assumed that the weather will not change. However, going forward this assumption is no longer valid. For example, we already know that in the U.S. Midwest a greater percentage of precipitation is coming in extreme events. In 2012 there was a stunning flood in Duluth, Minnesota. This flood blew out the storm drains for the city and there was immense damage. The city needs to rebuild infrastructure. The changes that have already occurred and that will occur need to taken into account.
This consideration of climate change in the building of infrastructure exposes the cost of climate and weather. This cost exposure serves as concrete and specific motivation to reduce the magnitude of climate change – that is, adaptation promotes mitigation.
There is a second issue that consideration of infrastructure brings into focus. Fifty years out is not a stable climate. In fact, it is a time of accelerating climate change. Hence, what is built for fifty years will require redesign. Therefore, we need to avoid the trap of perceived climate stability in fifty years. This brings focus on the “long-term” consequences at 100, 150, 200 years – spans of time beyond which we can think. Spans of time that are long to humans, but quite short to climate and the change that we can expect.
Second, generational time – In the comments to my previous entry, some said that we do not have time to wait a generation. I do not advocate that we wait. I only state that the generational time span is one of the natural time spans at work here. It is an important one. We are not going to “stop” climate change today; therefore, on a generational time span, people need to prepare. It is unrealistic to imagine that there is something that we can do in the short term, 10 years, which will allow us to dismiss the impact on the next generations.
Consideration of the generational time span provides us strategies for dealing with climate change that are substantive. It is the amount on time when climate savvy people will assume their roles as council members, mayors, representatives, governors, senators, and presidents. It is an amount of time when people working through community associations and nongovernmental organizations can take the behaviors of individuals and turn them into the behaviors of community. There is no magic that will bring a solution to the climate change problem; therefore, we have to build change into the fabric of our policy and behavior. This generational time is, perhaps, the most important, and we cannot squander it.
The short time - My ultimate goal is to speed up how quickly we respond to climate change. If we break down the problem into pieces then reconstruct those pieces into action, then we can speed up our response. We have to build the opportunity for snowballing successes to permeate society. We have to start rolling those snowballs in the short term. We have to focus on the policies that advance carbon-dioxide free production of energy. We have to focus on how to manage the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – we can’t merely cool the Earth and let carbon dioxide grow unabated. We have to investigate how we will sustainably manage our climate our economies and our people. These are all activities that we must start in the short term. We need to give those who will be acting on the generational time span the tools to do something. We will have failed if in fifty years people are still arguing that we should do something. We will have been irresponsible if in fifty years the portfolio of choices on what to do is as small and ambiguous as it is today. Short-term actions are critical to generational success.
I want to close this time discussion with reference to those who write comments about their ages. They state that at some level that they are short timers. I know some who as short timers say that climate change is not their problem. In my class we often discuss what are the most important factors that will promote responses to climate change. By the end of class time, the top answer is usually national security. The second answer is business opportunity. Third is legacy, and that the people most worried about legacy are grandparents. Parents have to worry about near-term survival and success; grandparents worry about legacy and the long term. Grandparents have huge intellectual capabilities and know how to get things done. Those looking at what seems like a short time personally, have more power than most to impact the long time.
Figure 1: Thinking about time and climate change: Short and Long Term
Updated: 4:36 AM GMT on January 25, 2013
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The Role of Short Timers
The Role of Short Timers
The previous entry described how I start to think about time and addressing the challenges of climate change. My focus was on generational time; that is, the amount of time it takes for one generation to replace the last generation. My message from that was not, “just wait,” but it is important to recognize that the fundamental changes in our behavior and energy systems will require some time.
This entry I will describe the issues that make climate change a problem in the here and now. In the following figure I highlight several items that are important in the short term. For the purpose of this article the short term is less than 10 years.
Figure 1: Thinking about time and climate change: What is important in the short-term?
1) Accumulation of Carbon Dioxide: From a climate scientist’s perspective the traditional short time issue is the “stabilization” of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That is, after we get all of this figured out, what is the amount of carbon dioxide that we have in the atmosphere? I refer back to several blogs I have written on stabilization. The basic idea is that the carbon dioxide we release from fossil fuels stays with us for a very long time; it does not really go away. A number that I quote in one of those blogs is that every year we emit like we are emitting now, we will be encumbered with about nine additional parts per million of carbon dioxide. To put this in perspective, prior to the industrial revolution we had about 280 parts per million and now we have about 400 parts per million. Therefore, actions we take now have consequences on lengths of times that we more commonly associate with geology.
2) Impacts of Extreme Events: We live in a climate that is warming rapidly. The weather is changing in some basic measures, such as, extreme precipitation, the speed at which storms move, the size of storms, the paths they follow, etc. At the same time that the weather changes, sea level is rising; snow and ice are melting. Therefore, we see larger impacts of storms like Superstorm Sandy. (see Cynthia Rosenzweig Interview) In Alaska, we see enormous erosion as shores that were protected by sea ice are left unprotected as the ice melts. We need to anticipate these changes in the impacts of extreme events that come from the fact that the weather is working in a world where many things are changing. This makes sense for preparedness, and it provides us case studies to help us think about the future.
3. Fast Ecosystem Changes: I sat in a meeting this week where people were thinking about how a warming climate and changing weather patterns would impact forests. Extreme events have huge impacts on forests through drought, flooding, fire, and salt-water storm surges. We used to imagine these forests “coming back” in the same climate. But now we have to think about the forests coming back with warmer temperatures, changes in precipitation patterns, and with new characteristics of extreme weather, for example, an extremely warm spring. Aside from changes to these basic environmental parameters, there are new opportunities for invasive species and disease. The forests might not even come back as forests. For example, with forests currently at the boundary of the prairie, like in Minnesota and Wisconsin, the forest is likely to return as savanna. (see the amazing work of Lee Frelich, for example Climate Change, Invasive, Species and Forests). I don’t say this in the spirit that we will avoid this if we do something now, but that we need to plan now – to borrow a phrase, to plan for the best savanna possible, rather than a scrub land of invasive species.
4. Election Time Scales: In the United States at the federal level, this is two, four, and six years – thereby, effectively two years. Through policy shifts we see expression of issues of energy security and economy. We see amplification of the political interests that are backed by dollars. We see the impact of tax arguments and tax policy – the impact of research and development budgets to promote and to inhibit technology development. At the city and state level, we see, often, the more stable policy development that reflect local and regional values. The decisions we make on these two-year cycles have enormous consequences for how we deal with global, long-term problems. (See arcane note at the end.)
The decisions that we make each and every day influence our long-term response to climate change. The impact varies from how warm it will ultimately be, to how we anticipate and respond to the disruptions of weather and climate, to how we invest in the technologies and opportunities that would allow us to address, more quickly, climate change. My goal is recognize the role of all of these different factors that work at different spans of time, and how do we change the world so that things converge in an accelerated way to address climate change and sustainability.
Rood Interview: Saga of Climate Change
Arcane Note: I grew up in the South in a family that was more politically interested than most. I saw the emergence and growth of, for example, Regent University. I remember at the time hearing of Pat Robertson’s vision of training what now has become their motto of “Christian Leadership to Change the World.” I listened to the idea of training journalists, lawyers, educated citizens who would get elected to town councils, school boards, mayors, state legislatures, governors, and ultimately, populating the federal government in both elected and appointed positions. I remember as a much younger man thinking, “That’s a really good strategy.” My personal opinion is that this has one of the most consequential movements in U.S. politics in my life. To add a little substance to my experience here are some articles you might find interesting:
Student Body Right, 2005, C. Hayes
Who’s the Boss, 2007, D. Lithwick
Pat, Bob and Regent University, 2009
My point: With a little organization, consideration of the short-term, and a generation of time, we can make changes that are more consequential than just letting things happen.
Updated: 2:47 AM GMT on January 18, 2013
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The Optimist’s Time
The Optimist’s Time
At the end of my last entry, I said that I anchor optimism in the students I see coming from high schools and colleges. They have environmental science and sustainability as core interests and core values. In this blog I write about time and change.
First, those students: When I was at NASA there was a time I felt that my job was marking the degradation of the Earth. I was in the ozone business at the time, and I remember, distinctly, being in the room where the proverbial smoking gun of chlorine-caused ozone loss was revealed. When I moved to the University of Michigan in 2005, I was not credentialed in climate change, but I was climate interested. Through a clanky chain of events, three students recruited me to start a climate change course that looked at the intersection of climate change and, at that beginning, business and policy. I started that course with a set of preconceptions that students needed to be educated about climate change, and with that, they would set about solving the problems of climate change.
In the first two weeks of that class, I learned that most of the students were quite climate knowledgeable. What they wanted from me was the construction of the science-based foundation on which to place their knowledge and a framework for how to use that knowledge in problem solving. Each year the students who make it to my class are different, but there is no doubt that the ones who make it to me are interested in changing the world in different ways. They see the world of many connected issues; they want to cross disciplines, but they live in a world that still rewards specialization. They know that problem solving requires connecting and rationalizing different interests. With regard to climate and the environment, more and more the sustainability of the planet is a core value.
I am impressed at how quickly this sustainability-focused group of people is emerging. Still though, this has been five years, and it is the result of, perhaps, twenty years of development and teaching of curriculum – plus advocacy. On one hand this is fast, on the other hand, many I know find this intolerably slow. But if we are going to integrate the value of our climate into our policy and behavior, then the length of time to grow the generations that internalize that value into their decisions is one of the most important measures of time.
Time: In my class I have developed a framework for problem solving. One of the essential pieces of setting up problem solving is to know the role of time. It is an easy statement to say that one of challenges of addressing climate change is that consequential change is far in the future (but see). This leads to a set of possible arguments. First, it is difficult to see how a decision we make today has any impact. If there is cost to that decision, then the benefit is far in the future. A second notion is that consequential climate change is so far in the future that we have time to develop the technological fixes. Third, there are so many unknown factors in science and population and economy that surely something will come along and disrupt any rational plans that we make today. I can list more, and the common feature of all of these notions is that they allow us easy rationalizations to do nothing about climate change. Therefore, we need those who have internalized the value of climate into their behavior to be making the decisions of policy and investment.
As a scientist, when I started the course the measures of time that seemed important to me were the ones scientists think about. For example, how long does carbon dioxide stay in the atmosphere? Or more science-policy questions: How much do we have to reduce emissions to make a difference? How long does it take before we know we have made a difference? After teaching for a while, it became clear that though these measures of time were important, they were not especially usable in the communication of the importance of climate change or in motivation in problem solving.
Above, I suggested that an important length of time would be “generational.” When I was in grade school, I was taught that the span of a generation was 35 years. In fact, I found that as a definition at The Free Dictionary. When I was at NASA, with something of a charge to change organizations, it became apparent that an important amount of time was associated with retirement. This leads to a statement most often attributed to Neils Bohr, "science progresses one death at a time." The point, an important amount of time is the human life.
I use the following figure to start to think about time.
Figure 1: Starting to think about time and climate change. Amounts of time that matter to people.
In the figure I divide time into long and short, and I choose 50 years as that division. It is generational, but it is also the amount of time that a person works and saves for retirement. It is about the longest amount of time that we seem to be able to think about. If you start to work with people planning cities and roads and levees, then a number that often comes up is fifty years. It is number to think about for infrastructure development. With respect to climate change, it is long enough that when that infrastructure is planned, we need to think about how the weather will be different.
On the left side of the figure I label energy security and economy. Both of these are issues that we have ample evidence of change over very short amounts of time. I remember feeling pretty good about my retirement savings at the end of 2007 and not so good at the end of 2008. With the onset of recession, any talk of the cost to change to renewable energy was ended – it was too much of a threat to the economy. In fact, one of the first things we wanted to do was to extract fossil fuels. It would provide energy, jobs, and with cheap energy more jobs. We see fracking explode, natural gas booms, and, now, people saying we have achieved energy security, and since we no longer are talking about climate change, there is no need to invest in renewable energy. The short-term has undermined the long-term.
Understanding the role of time in complex problems is an essential step in getting started on solutions. It is important to consider not only the times important to science, but to energy, to the economy, and, perhaps most of all, to people.
From the Washington Post. It says something about how we treat time. By Tom Toles.