Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Climate change

Climate change:  Any systematic change in the long-term statistics of climate elements (such as temperaturepressure, or winds) sustained over several decades or longer.— American Meteorological Society

I don’t know about you, but I wish the zealots at either end of the climate change cacophony would just shut up.  The alarmists at one end portray climate change as the most significant threat to civilization since the Nazis.  The ostriches at the other end say “Climate change?  What climate change?”  We all know that the truth is somewhere in between, but exactly where – and, more importantly, what should we be doing about it?  That’s one of the reasons I like the AMS definition – very definitely does not take sides.

In the following, I’m going to present some facts about climate change as answers to important questions, and then the conclusions I draw from them.  Many of you will disagree with my conclusions – if you let me know why, and have good reasons, super!  I’ll have learned something.  As I used to tell my students, “If I don’t learn from you then I’ve failed as a teacher [thought provoker] and you’ve failed as students [the provoked].”

Is the climate changing?

The average global temperature is rising.  It rose fairly rapidly from 1910 to 1945, was flat from 1945-1975, and increased very rapidly until 1998.  Since then, it has risen much more slowly.  In some datasets, 2015 and 2016 were, however, significantly warmer than the year before (by about 0.1°C each).  I bring this up to indicate that there is some uncertainty in the data and/or that temperatures may be ready to rise more rapidly.

Sea levels are also rising: on average at about 3-4 mm/year since 1880 (but there seem to be significant error bars around the average).  Unfortunately, subsidence complicates the picture – the apparent sea level rise in Louisiana is about 3 times higher than the average due to the land sinking; a similar trend holds for the Norfolk, VA, area.  Conversely, the land in Alaska seems to be rising; the apparent sea level in Sitka, AL, is decreasing slightly.

There appears to have been slightly more precipitation both globally and in the US over the last quarter century.  However, this is certainly within the uncertainty bands of the data.

Conclusion 1.  The climate is changing, but by fits and starts.

What is causing the climate to change?

The copout answer is Man and Nature.  Human-induced climate change is attributed primarily to fossil fuel burning (i.e., producing CO2); since the time of Arrhenius (ca. 1900) the mechanisms by which carbon dioxide would affect temperature have been known.  Natural climate change is due to a combination of natural cycles of various durations (e.g., El Nino’s and La Nina’s) and abrupt natural events such as a volcano’s eruption.  Climate scientists are trying to tease out the contributions of each source based on models.  In general, these models aren’t really much help in identifying the smoking gun.  They have been tuned to accurately reflect the 1975-98 rapid increase in temperature and generally attribute much of the rise in temperatures to fossil fuel burning (i.e., CO2), but they don’t reproduce the 1945-75 or the post-1998 period very well.  Their predictions have been drifting away from our observed temperatures since Y2K.  There are some natural phenomena that they do not represent well at all, esp. the effects of clouds.  As the models have evolved, the predicted influence of CO2 has decreased as reflected in the reports of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  Perhaps most importantly, there is little correlation between the changes in global temperature and the changes in the global concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, which has been increasing since at least 1800.  It should also be noted that natural sources of CO2 (esp. transpiration from a warming ocean) dwarf human production by about two orders of magnitude.  And contrary to some of what we’ve been told, there appear to have been significant warm periods about the time of Christ and again at the turn of the first millennium that may have been as warm as now.  The latter warm era was followed by the Little Ice Age which peaked (troughed?) around 1730.  The world has been warming since then, again by fits and starts.

Conclusion 2.  We really don’t know how much of the current warming is due to human activity.  While we know how CO2 should affect temperature, we don’t understand natural phenomena and their variability well enough to accurately determine how much of the current climate change is Man and how much is Nature.

Is climate change good or bad?

Aye, there’s the rub, as old Hamlet said.  Predictions of dire consequences are based on our climate models.  Among the dire consequences predicted are more frequent and more intense storms. In fact, we have experienced somewhat fewer hurricanes and tornadoes, and those less severe, than in the last century.  These storms have caused more costly damage because of more people and property in places they shouldn’t be, i.e., we’ve had more disasters not because of climate change but because of movement of people and property into harm’s way.

Another of the dire consequences predicted was reduced food production.  In fact, global agricultural production is increasing 50% faster this century than last.  The Sahel desert in Africa has shrunk; areas that were barren last century are green now.  The fact is that almost all of the dire predictions are based on fossil fuel generation scenarios that are either unrealistic or simply don’t reflect either current practices or trends.

Conclusion 3.  At the present time, we don’t know enough to say whether climate change will be a blessing or a curse.  The one certainty is that the climate will continue to change and that it will continue to impact our lives – in some way.

What are the appropriate policy responses?

This is where we leave the realm of science – and its uncertainties – and make decisions based on our own perceptions and our individual value systems.  Some, believing that dire disaster is imminent, would rush to an all-renewable energy future.  Others would ignore the possibilities and take no action except for dealing with climate change’s immediate consequences (e.g., sea level rise).  Here is how I would respond.

  • Make our cities and our infrastructure more robust.  If sea level rise is impacting a city (e.g., Miami) then do what Miami’s doing – adapt to it.  Beef up or move infrastructure to reduce risk.
  • More funding for weather forecasting.  Climate doesn’t kill but weather does. Part of this would be aimed at better understanding the short- and medium-term (months to years) impacts of things we don’t understand very well and certainly can’t model adequately.  While the focus would be on better weather forecasting, this ultimately would also lead to better models.
  • Continued, but drastically reduced, funding for climate modeling.  Primarily I would continue to fund work to reduce the uncertainties and to better match our models to the climate evolution of the past, particularly since 1800.  To me, this latter piece is crucial:  our modelers seem to assume that climate change is all tied up with CO2, but we also have some interesting correlations with solar phenomena and ocean currents.
  • A phase out of all energy subsidies.  The US has been subsidizing solar and wind since the early ‘70’s; the subsidies for these renewables began to surpass those of the oil companies in 2008.  The oil depletion allowance is even older, dating back to 1926.  We’ve had a fusion energy program since the ‘50’s that still hasn’t produced anything useful.  The influx of stimulus funding into the renewables sector after the Great Recession has yielded precious little return on the taxpayers’ investment.  Let’s quit subsidizing the already-rich (and the incompetents and the hustlers – see Solyndra).
  • Let’s forget about taxing or otherwise limiting carbon until we have a better understanding of its role in climate change and a better idea of what a low- or no-carbon future might look like. Whether we are willing to admit it or not, the working poor, the elderly on fixed incomes and others who are disadvantaged are the ones who will end up bearing a disproportionate share of the negative impacts.  For example, it is estimated that 2.3 M British families cannot afford to adequately heat their homes in the winter because green initiatives have driven up the cost of conventional energy sources.

For the first time in history, less than 10% of the world’s population is living in extreme poverty. However, a recent paper looked at what it would take to limit the average global temperature to a 2°C increase (to avoid predicted extreme impacts of climate change).  The authors found that CO2 emissions would have to be cut in half – every decade.  For example, no fossil fuel powering our cities and no more internal combustion engines sold by 2030.  Where are the jobs for the displaced miners and automotive workers? How many people would be sucked back into extreme poverty?  I can’t speak for others but isn’t it immoral to push people into poverty based on the suspect predictions of computer models?  Isn’t it more sensible to adapt to a gradually changing climate rather than imitating King Canute trying to order the tide not to rise?

Basing policies on the results of uncertain computer models seems like building a beach house on the sand.  If we are to be truly resilient, we must base our policies on what we know, while recognizing our imperfect knowledge.  If we are to be truly resilient, we must base our policies on our shared values – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Policies that threaten those who are on the bottom rungs of life’s ladder also threaten to make our communities weaker.  We know too little (and that too imprecisely) to take draconian action now.  Money spent to strengthen the weak will pay far greater dividends than the drastic actions some suggest for combating climate change.  Change is inevitable; suffering is not.  By strengthening the weakest among us we will minimize their suffering no matter what changes the future brings.