Climate Change Blogs

Changing the Headlines: Riffing on Revkin

Published: January 26, 2015
Changing the Headlines: Riffing on Revkin

I want to revisit the strategies of communication that we use when writing and talking about climate change. Back in 2011, Christine Shearer and I wrote, “Changing the Media Discussion on Climate and Extreme Weather.” A point that we made was that scientists needed to view their interactions with the press and public as more than an expert voice answering questions. We are also active participants in a conversation, listening and speaking. As part of our participation, we have the opportunity to advance the larger societal discussions in positive and progressive directions.

A headline that caught my attention this week was “How ‘Warmest Ever’ Headlines and Debates Can Obscure What Matters About Climate Change.” This is a Dot Earth Opinion Piece by Andrew Revkin. The piece focuses on the how the message that is delivered by focusing on records is not only simplistic, but fuels the most public part of the political and denialist arguments. The fuel comes in the form of the fundamentally meaningless arguments over the measurements and methodology of determining whether or not a particular month or year is hottest. It is reminiscent of arguments of rankings from football and basketball polls.

I want to take Revkin’s headline and explore it from a different point of view. Since May of 2014, I have been writing that 2014 would likely be a record hot year, and, implicitly, that should be more expected than extraordinary. We are living in a time of unabated warming. We have knowledge to substantiate that this warming will continue for decades. We have no knowledge to suggest that the warming will cease. Therefore, we should be expecting record warm years. More reliably, we expect record-warm decades and, even more reliably, record-warm thirty-year intervals. What would be extraordinary, remarkable, would be a month or year that was colder than the twentieth century average. If our game is to count record warmth, then we will soon have record fatigue.

There is another thread in Revkin’s piece about the backlash from reporting records and his back and forth with Gavin Schmidt. In 2010, I wrote a piece called Politics and Knowledge, What to Do. (Here is the whole What To Do Collection) In that piece I discuss Brendan Nyhan’s and Jason Reifler’s study The Persistence of Political Misconceptions. They find through case studies that the correction of incorrect information in polarized political issues did not lead to a rationalization of factual knowledge. In fact, they found that the correction of factually incorrect information could backfire, leading to more polarization. In more recent work, Nyhan et al. have confirmed this phenomenon with respect to vaccination, which is having influence in the vaccination field. The point, we have these social science findings, which we seem to dismiss and prove we are what we repeatedly do.

We can, in fact, conclude that our quest for simple messages and smothering evidence of global change hands control of the headline conversation to the denial interested. Here is a concrete example.

Much of the public discussion forms around figures such as this one from the 2001 IPCC Third Assessment Report. This is a figure of variations of a global average of surface temperature – air temperature.

Figure 1: From 2001 IPCC Third Assessment Report Variations of the Earth’s surface temperature: year 1000 to year 2100. (More description of figure and my markups)

This figure (along with its older and newer versions) was designed to communicate, especially to policy makers, the scale and uncertainty of average planetary warming to be expected. The figure is one of many figures that, as a whole, tell a convincing story of the Earth warming due to increased greenhouse gases and changes to the Earth’s surface. This is warming that is overwhelming natural variability. From a scientist's perspective, it is poor scientific methodology to pose this figure as an up or down vote on the veracity of our body of knowledge about climate change. However, if your goal is to sprout and grow doubt, it is an excellent figure to isolate, pose as credentialed and fundamental, and, then, perpetuate news and response.

The figure was never meant to stand alone as the descriptor and the convincer of global warming. It was part of a whole. The surface air temperature is a measure of climate and weather that is intuitive. It is important to humans. It follows naturally from our attention to the weather, and from our history that quantitative climate science followed from the study of weather – of the atmosphere. Not only is the surface air temperature an incomplete measure of the Earth’s climate, it is not a very good summary measure of the Earth’s climate.

The Earth is warming – the Earth, not just the air. The Earth is accumulating a larger portion of the energy that the Sun provides. The oceans play the dominant role in the Earth’s climate with regard to heat storage and transport. As 2014 shows explicitly, the oceans have a central role in the air temperature. That the heat goes first to the ocean, then to the air, does not excuse us of the fact that the increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the root cause of a warming Earth.

Heat also goes into melting the ice sheets and the glaciers. If the heat is doing that work, then it is not going into warming the air.

Air temperature is, therefore, neither a complete nor an especially good measure of climate. Yet, we continue to let it drive headlines for climate change.

Return to the figure. The whole silly warming pause, warming hiatus thing follows from this type of figure. If you extract a segment from say 1990-2020, then the model projections and observations align with discrepancies that are large enough to allow the proposal of doubt and to fuel its growth. That is, if you take this figure in isolation and make it the core of arguments and headlines.

This figure, however, was designed to communicate an intuitive and important aspect of climate change, not to represent all of climate change. The models used for the figure were designed to frame the range of possible future warming, and place that warming in context of the past century. They were not designed to predict the bumps and wiggles associated with a particular year or decade. In fact, the figure uses a large collection of models, averaged together to remove those bumps and wiggles. In early versions of the figure, the models did not have the ability to represent the melting of ice. Nor did they have the oceans represented with sufficient robustness to represent the air-temperature variability associated with the ocean. Hence, if the observations aligned, strongly, with the figure, then that would be far more suspect, scientifically, than the discrepancies that have been realized.

Hence, we have a figure that was designed to communicate one aspect of the changing climate. This figure is of a climate measure that does not singularly represent climate. The models used to construct the figure were designed to frame the future, not to predict the months and years of 2010s. Yet, the figure has been used to frame and dominate the headlines, by focusing on the failures of observations to match the figure and the arcane science-based corrections to rationalize the discrepancies. This keeps the most present of public discussion nonproductive.

A few years ago I was talking with an executive from a power company. He was not ignorant or dismissive of climate change. He assured me, however, that it was his job to challenge in court any regulation of emissions that would be proposed. This buys time to develop strategies, to amortize current capacity and to influence policy. It buys time for competitive advantage. The Earth’s climate is not simple, and neither are the reasons to sustain doubt and tumultuous headlines. There is reason, even, for the knowing to maintain an inconclusive conversation.

No doubt, “warmest ever” headlines obscure what is important about climate change. It takes what is expected and makes it into inconsequential headlines. It is simplistic in many ways to make this persistently premiere news. It plays into maintaining a conversation that is isolating of the subject of climate change. It consumes the energy and resources of scientists in fundamentally nonproductive ways. It helps the denialists frame the conversation. We need to learn to embrace the complexity, simply, rather that trying to communicate the complexity simplistically.


Not Writing About How Hot 2014 Was:

Published: January 17, 2015
Not Writing About How Hot 2014 Was:

I will be the only climate-change blogger not writing about how hot it was in 2014. Nor will I write about how remarkable this fact might be because there was not an El Niño. I want all of my faithful blog readers to go back to my entry from May 29, 2014, and then paste into comments on other people blogs “We have remained warm, globally, despite relatively cool temperatures in the eastern Pacific. Given the importance of the eastern Pacific to the global picture, even a small break in the cool pattern is likely to lead to globally historic highs.” I’m just that way – a vain, cranky old man making mostly obvious observations.

I will talk a little bit about what this heat means relative to other hot times. I am responding to a comment over at What would happen to the climate if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today? I will have another piece over at The Conversation at the end of February when it will have been 30 years since the last month whose temperature was below the twentieth century average.

The comment I respond to (you will have to go other there for more context):

“It is difficult for me to understand your premise that humans have evolved to perform optimally in a particular range of global temperature. Humans did well during the Medieval Warm Period (warmer than today) and did well during the first part of the 20th century when the global temperature was cooler than at present.

In fact, some folks who study agriculture think that part of the 20th century "green revolution" can be attributed to increased concentration of atmospheric CO2 and to longer growing periods due to warming global temperature.”

My Reply

Let’s take the Medieval Warm Period (MWP). The most convincing scientific investigations conclude that the geographical extent of the MWP was not global and that it was not warmer than the current times. Also I think it easy to argue that our knowledge of the MWP is Euro-centric. Those details, however, are not important to the foundation of my argument.

To be clear, I used the example of human heat health as a concrete example of a more general fact that agriculture, ecosystems, humans, etc. have evolved to perform well in a certain range of temperature and wetness. If one goes in either direction, too dry-too wet, too cold-too hot then that performance is reduced.

From the point of view of an expansive-minded culture on the European continent, the sustained warmth is a boon and opportunity. Perhaps, they view that God is on their side. Perhaps there is the possibility of wine from Greenland, though I imagine it surely remained a crop of marginal reliability and quality. From the point of view of the native Greenlander it is a disaster. They might adapt to different behaviors of seals and whales and lichens; however, they do not adapt to marauding bands of Vikings. In this little example, the world might indeed be better for the Vikings, but hard to argue that it is better for the Greenlander. Like today we have winners and the, perhaps, dismissed losers.

I think my original point was that climate change would be disruptive. The balances that we have developed will be challenged, and there are very few examples of incremental, peaceful, systematic adaptation to such changes.

Going a little further – as I understand things, the difference between the MWP and the following Little Ice Age was on the order of a half a degree Fahrenheit (see Figure). So in my interpretation of things, we have evidence that half a degree Fahrenheit has significant impacts on agriculture, ecosystems and humans. Presently, we have warmed the planet by, what, three times that amount, and we will be warming the planet at least twice that. This warming is occurring very rapidly. Therefore, the consequences and the disruptions are expected to be large, and the adaptations we achieve will be painful.

There is no evidence that I am aware of that the Arctic realized the large and essentially irreversible changes we have seen today. There is no evidence of substantial changes in sea level; stability in sea level can be linked to societal success because of our affinity for the coasts and sailing around exploring and wreaking havoc. Therefore, today’s warming has far more profound environmental consequences than those associated with the MWP.

In the little world of the Vikings and Greenland, we have ignored what might have been happening in the Sahel, at the edges of the deserts in India and China. In our little Euro-world of the MWP, we did not have seven billion or more people to feed. Therefore, I am quite ignorant of how humans as a whole performed, thought it is generally not a time viewed as the golden age of humans. Today, the number or people and their portfolio of environmental impacts yield a planet that is fundamentally different today than 500, 1000, 1500 years ago.

No one denies that there is a fertilization effect of carbon dioxide. Plants that have famous carbon dioxide sensitivity are poison ivy and marijuana. As with all fertilizers, more is not necessarily better. Some plants respond differently to carbon dioxide. There are strong sensitivities to environmental nitrogen, a pollutant on the scale of carbon dioxide. And while there are some benefits to some plants, the acidification of the ocean is likely to cause disruptions to plant and animal life that make that carbon dioxide benefit look stunningly insignificant.

All we really have going for us is the analysis and predictions of certain warming, ice melting, sea level rise and weather changing. We have knowledge on how to limit our damage and knowledge on how to prepare for what’s coming. We can be smarter than the Vikings heading faithfully and blindly out into the sea and cluelessly starting vineyards.


Figure 1: Variability of temperature last 1000 year. From Koshland Climate Museum

Some references:

Spatial expanse of warming

Stable Sea Level and Civilization

Variability of temperature last 1000 years

Please note the comment from Ray Arritt about the factual aspects of vineyards in Greenland ... 20150119

Arritt's comment reproduce here:

"Been lurking here for quite some time and thought to offer a pedantic correction or two on one of my favorite topics.

There's no sign of wine grapes having been grown in Greenland. There's evidence of attempts to grow barley, but even those appear to have been intermittent and limited to small, protected areas. It's just too cold.

The sagas tell of finding grapes during the Vikings' few trips to "Vinland" (literally, land of grapevines) around 1000 AD. The location of Vinland is uncertain but it probably was along the St. Lawrence River or the Atlantic coast somewhere between New Brunswick and New England.

Greenland was not "green" during the Norse era, at least no greener than at present. According to the sagas Erik the Red called his prospective colony Greenland because "he said people would be attracted there if it had a favorable name." Advertising hype, 985 AD."

Big Loopy Road Trip: Energy in America Moves On

Published: January 12, 2015
Big Loopy Road Trip: Energy in America Moves On

I still like the road trip, and last week I drove from Boulder, Colorado to Ann Arbor, Michigan. For two full days along U.S. 34, U.S. 136 and U.S. 36, I did not see a Starbucks, Cracker Barrel or a Whole Foods. Some of the bigger towns had a WalMart, but I was on the lookout for towns that might be big enough to support a Casey’s, literally sputtering into one because aging Subaru-san’s gas seems a little sludgy at the bottom of the tank. For a while I was feeling hopeful for America, that I had set behind the culture of retail-political polarization, but alas, it runs deep. I confess to equal affinity for Cracker Barrel and Whole Foods, which might deem me an unreliable narrator.

The choice of my route is a minor exercise in the use of weather models. I had decided that I was going against my personality preferences and make my way up to I-80 in the mid-part of Nebraska. It being winter, I thought that was smart. Left midday from Colorado, with the goal of staying in McCook, one of my favorites, on U.S. 34. Looked at the forecast maps and saw one of those Arctic clippers for eastern Iowa and Chicago, plus the potential for a lot of lake-effect snow along I-94 in Michigan, so I decided to meander south along U.S. 36. Hadn’t been to Marysville in a while to see all of the coal moving from Wyoming and Colorado to wherever it goes these days. Sometimes it is best of avoid I-94 during lake-effect snows. Anyway, I managed to prove the usability of models and came up I-69 from Indianapolis after the snow had been scraped and worn off of the interstate. Gee, models are useful – those clever meteorologists.

This road trip was the conclusion of a loop that started the week of Thanksgiving with Chicago, Kentucky, North Carolina and a nice night in Topeka, with a truly outstanding meal.

Some may remember a couple of earlier road trips with a report of energy in the U.S. There was one in 2009 after the recession had hit hard, and there were wind turbines being hauled around like whales. And then the one in 2008 with the "Clean, Carbon Neutral Coal" billboards. What I can say from this trip, the energy landscape in the U.S. is changing, the All of the Above Energy Strategy is blooming everywhere.

Crossing County Line road from Boulder County to Weld County in Colorado is a transition from we-fight-fracking to we-love-fracking, with many oil wells and a few flaring stacks of escaping methane. In Nebraska there is the sweet smell of ethanol processing. Illinois has the most aggressive roadside signs with all matter of ethanol, biodiesel and gun advocacy. Also a sign accusing President Obama of a variety of misdeeds with practically the same language I have recently been receiving from some new email fans.

The most impressive things I saw, however, were the wind farms along I-65 in Indiana, along I-70 in Kansas and near Limon, Colorado. There are many hundreds of turbines. Stopped to see if we could hear them, but the wind was blowing too hard to hear any turbines. Is there some sort of irony of these massive renewable energy installations quietly growing in where, well, there are a lot of Casey’s General Stores?

I will end my casual observations with the gigantic Alltech algae facility in Mitch McConnell’s Kentucky. Here’s some more links Algae the Growth Platform, Algae Biofuels and Algae Fermentation Video. Gee, seems like all of these states have something with an energy edge that politicians might be interested in protecting. Cool.

There is no doubt that things are changing out there in the countryside. There are small, medium and large solar installations - wind, corn, biodiesel, oil, natural gas and coal (Fracking and coal best at radio advertisements!). I have never seen energy so present and visible. I think that’s a good thing. Good and bad policy, good and bad technology seem to be working it out a little bit (Solyndra and U.S. energy loan program). No telling what’s off of my little transect. Let me know what energy is growing up in your backyards.


Figure 1: Meadow Lake Wind Farm from Indiana 43 in White County: Chris Light at en.wikipedia

Sunrise, Sunset / Sunrise, Sunset / Swiftly Fly the Years

Published: January 2, 2015
Sunrise, Sunset / Sunrise, Sunset / Swiftly Fly the Years

Here’s an easy prediction for 2015. When we arrive at March 1, 2015, it will have been 30 years since there was a month where the global average surface temperature was below the 20th century average. We are creatures who like our milestones in years and decades and numbers divisible by 5, 10, 25 and 50 (like our currency), and a 30 year average is the definition of climate in the standard of climate as the average weather. The National Climatic Data Center goes to some effort to strictly define “normal” in terms of 30-year averages. With the arrival of March 1, 2015, all of the months used in the calculation of current climate will have been warmer than the climate of my youth, the previous generation, our grandparent’s generation, Howard Taft’s, Teddy Roosevelt’s, indeed, Benjamin Harrison’s. You might recall that in my unfashionable way, I objected to calling the 30-year average that ended in 2010 the “new” normal, because of the intuitive notion that normal is, well, what we might expect. And what we might expect is that the temperature will continue to rise, and not stay the same as the previous 30 years.

Despite it being -14 F in my backyard a couple of days ago, in the middle of January we are very likely to receive the confirmation from NOAA that 2014 was, globally, the warmest year recorded. We’ve seen this coming for a while, and it will be briefly news. NBC has already said that it is officially the warmest year on record. There’s even a video of Tom Karl, briefly dealing with the subject of last week’s blog on ocean versus atmosphere as a measure of climate.

The planet will continue to heat up for as long as anyone reading this blog will be alive. One decade following another, each one warmer than the last. While writing the blogs this year, it has become far more apparent to me the irreversible path that we are on. The heat that we are accumulating is spreading throughout the Earth. The oceans are warming and ice is melting. The heat is creeping along, and it really can’t be stopped. The rise in temperature is almost incidental to the scale of these changes in the global environment. The changes are occurring fast enough that it makes sense to use them in personal planning: where you live, where you build, how you build. You can use the information to make yourself more secure. This includes placing yourselves in positions of influence, even power, to make your communities and cities more secure.

I wrote in a very early blog about do we require catastrophe before we take action on climate change? The answer is yes, at some level. Our vulnerabilities to weather will continue to change as the temperature warms, ice melts, sea level rises and the weather changes. There will be catastrophes, and it will be our responses to these catastrophes that determine how we cope with climate change. Do we rebuild in the same places in the same ways? Do we continue to manage the land and water with the same rules and tactics? Ultimately, do we learn from the early catastrophes so that we develop a systematic, knowledge-based resilience for the future?

I believe that in the collective, we can adapt to climate change. We are adaptive and innovative creatures. We have adapted to many things in the past. We don’t adapt without disruption. We don’t adapt with constant growth and improving standards of living. What we will have to learn is how to adapt when the climate is changing; we will have to build that change into our planning and execution. The skill to plan to change is something that some do well, some do not, but the ability to do it well will become more and more essential. It is a skill that can be taught and learned.

I am happy to report that in another theme that I have followed over the years, North Carolina’s approach to sea-level rise, that the answer is coming. There is a draft report by the Coastal Resources Commission, which is headed out to review. The report is, by mandate, limited to 30 years, but given how this all started, the article in the News and Observer is practically promising. The report looks at spatial variability, with a rise by 2045 of order of 12 inches in the northern part of the state. And here is the most promising statement from the News and Observer:

“In its new report, the North Carolina science panel shows what will happen if the rate of sea-level rise is unchanged over the next 30 years: an increase ranging from about 2.4 inches at Southport to about 5.4 inches at Duck.

But the report does not endorse this prospect. It focuses instead on the likelihood that the seas will rise faster and faster in coming years. The forecast is based on a range between two different scenarios, laid out in international climate change reports, for mild or heavy greenhouse gas emissions.”

Planning on a 30-year time frame, with knowledge-based numbers, and recognition that at 30 years sea-level rise doesn’t just stop – flirting with rational.

So, 2015 will see unpleasant politics in the U.S. and climate-world gearing up for the 2015 Conference of Parties in Paris. And I hope some growth in our Applied Climate Program.

Thanks for reading and here’s to next year’s successes,


Wagging the Dog

Published: December 24, 2014
Wagging the Dog

My piece that was published last week at The Conversation entitled, What would happen to the climate if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today? has had more than 350K reads – most read science and technology article of the week. Last week in my WU blog, I provided some background material trying to make that piece a little more intuitive. In this blog, I will expand on a couple of ideas that came up in the conversation.

Ocean, Atmosphere and History: It is interesting to me how the paths we take frame our perceptions and establish our social structure and norms. What an arcane statement.

Meteorology and oceanography have been studied as parts of natural science for centuries. Paul Edward’s book A Vast Machine gives an excellent historical perspective. As population grew, as agriculture expanded, and as exploration, colonization and commerce became global, meteorology and oceanography took on more and more important roles in society. The studies moved out of the curiosity realm of a handful of natural scientists.

For a variety of reasons, meteorology evolved quickly in the early twentieth century. Perhaps the most compelling reason for the emergence of meteorology was the impact on people and society. When we think about impacts, we are first drawn to risks from extreme weather such as tornadoes, hurricanes and blizzards. However, there is a more, perhaps, benign aspect, where weather that is not extreme is used in planning. When to fly? When to plant? When to bet against Peyton Manning? Weather is important and it is consequential to people on a day-to-day basis.

The need for weather information in both peace and war brought motivated people to problems of forecasting. This led to the development of ways to measure the atmosphere. With the recognition that the atmosphere behaved as a fluid, there was development of the foundational theory of dynamical meteorology. Physical meteorology emerged as thermodynamics was applied to understand precipitation. As the observational and theory-based knowledge were conflated, it was realized that there was the potential to predict the weather. The emergence of digital computers greatly advanced predictive skill and the development of atmospheric models.

For many years, weather forecasting models did not even calculate the heating from the Sun and the cooling of the Earth to space. Their goal was to take an observed snapshot of the weather and to project that snapshot forward in time as long as possible. When started, practitioners of numerical weather prediction were excited when a day or two of skill was realized. The ocean? The ocean was largely absent in early models. Some years later it was recognized that sea surface temperatures might influence weather forecasts.

We have, here, the fact that predictive models developed from not only an atmosphere-centric point of view, but from a weather point of view. The development was framed by the limitations of computational and financial resources as well as by the expert judgment of what the scientists at the time thought was the most important thing to do next. The history and culture of weather forecasting had and have an enormous impact on climate science.

While weather-forecast science evolved with a compelling, societal purpose, physical oceanography and climatology remained more in the realm of the curiosity-driven. Though, no doubt, advocated and recognized as intellectually and societally important, these disciplines did not have the societal imperative. For example, though important to shipping, surface currents in the ocean are relatively slow changing relative to how long it takes a ship to move rubber ducks from Hong Kong to the U.S. Adequate knowledge of surface currents might, arguably, be obtained from mean measurements. As for climate science, original climate models were viewed more or less as a weather model, except that solar radiation was more important than weather.

Trying to explain the relation between the heat in the ocean and air temperature in What would happen to the climate if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today? and my WU blog brought home to me the deficiencies of the atmospheric point of view. I have written about Point of View before and, specifically, that we are most interested in how climate affects us; therefore, we are most interested in the surface air temperature. Years ago, I understood that if I were to take a balanced look at climate science, then the role of the ocean was under appreciated, under observed, under represented and under communicated. (Same true for ice sheets.)

The discussion about the atmosphere and ocean put me in mind of the arguments about whether or not the Sun revolved around the Earth (geocentric) or the Earth revolved around the Sun (heliocentric). The intuition that the Sun revolved about the Earth follows from our point of view and that our point of view is in some way fundamental. Observing the motion of the Sun and the planets in the sky, it was possible to argue that the Sun revolved around the Earth, explaining planetary motion with occasional epicycles, circles within circles that explained why the planets moved backwards. Eventually this perspective collapsed under the scrutiny of observations and physics.

If we followed the energy, then the natural focus of climate science would be the oceans. In fact, when I first heard about global warming (in the 1960s), many scientists said global warming would not be a problem for humans because the oceans would harmlessly absorb the excess heat. The ocean was viewed as a big static heat sink – big carbon dioxide sink as well. But the ocean moves energy and carbon dioxide around. What goes in can come out. If the focus in climate science and climate-change communication was on the ocean, then the temperature variability of the atmosphere would be largely framed as a response to the ocean. Our current perspective, the one that I took in the Conversation piece, is a bit like the tail wagging the dog. It is not incorrect; however, it frames climate change in a way that renders some very fundamental aspects of climate change difficult to communicate.

Figure 1: The tail wagging the dog from sketchedout wordpress blog.
Categories:Climate Change
About the Blogs
These blogs are a compilation of Dr. Jeff Masters,
Dr. Ricky Rood, and Angela Fritz on the topic of climate change, including science, events, politics and policy, and opinion.