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Separated and Unified: One Climate

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 1:30 AM GMT on January 29, 2013

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).

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The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.