Why Severe Winter Storms Do Not Contradict The Facts Of Climate Change
A lot of false equivalence and misunderstanding swirls around the vicious spate of unusually extreme cold temperatures blanketing a large swath of the United States the last several days and continuing into this second week of February.
Anytime the weather extremes bend in the direction of record breaking frigid temps, it is inevitable that Climate Change Deniers and those influenced by them, pop up on social media and contend that such meteorological events demonstrate that anthropogenic (human activity causation related) global warming must be false.
The contention is simplistically based on the notion that such incidents display proof that no such overall warming trend exists. Instead, they assert, natural variability in atmospheric conditions account for all weather conditions that arise.
The problem with that is that no credible studies exist to support that assertion. The data, whether it is land temperature readings or satellite monitored, indicate just the opposite.
In its 2013 fifth assessment report, the IPCC (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) stated in its summary for policymakers that it is “extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature” from 1951 to 2010 was caused by human activity. By “extremely likely”, it meant that there was between a 95% and 100% probability that more than half of modern warming was due to humans.
When the IPCC cross analyzes projections from climate models and actual data from statistical models, they conclude that natural variability has a negligible effect on climate and that human activity has a predominant effect.
This chart, courtesy of Carbon Brief, summarizes in graphic form, the results of a climate model derived from the research of Dr. Karsten Haustein and his colleagues at the University of Oxford and University of Leeds.
The various colored lines and dots illustrate the comparative role of what the scientists refer to as “radiative forcings”, including natural and human influenced contributions to the warming trend in evidence from 1850 to 2017.
As you can see, land use, variations in solar activity, volcanic activity and the use of aerosols, are factors over time that average negligible impact on warming. Radiation of energy from the Sun, fluctuates with relatively uniform consistency in 11 year cycles.
In contrast, the accumulation of greenhouse gases (heat trapping emissions) from energy production and consumption of fossil fuel relative to human activity (electricity use), modes of transportation and industry, display a dramatic influence in the warming of the planet.
What we’ve discussed in brief is representative of a wide consensus among climatologists and climate science. As the Union Of Concerned Scientists, sums it up, “Federal agencies, universities, the latest climate assessments, and research centers around the world have all concluded that Earth is warming.”
Despite that, the perception among a sizable minority of the public persists that events like the wide ranging storms we’re experiencing this week, demonstrate that climate change is, in the words of many, a “hoax” and that experts and activists are captives of a “globalist agenda.”
Impeached president Donald Trump, correctly assessed early on, that climate change skepticism was an attractive rhetorical device with his voters, leading him to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord and to effectively castrate the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The central fallacy at play here, is the idea that weather possesses a direct relationship and correlation to climate. Those who embrace this fallacy put voice to it in the form of statements which resemble such as,
“It’s so cold outside. Sure could use some of that global warming.”
A less pedestrian version of the above skepticism, is this from Michael Van der Gallen, writing in TheAtlanticRight.com:
“Global warming continues to cause trouble to this tiny, blue planet: A new record was set Wednesday when Chicago had its ninth consecutive day of measurable snowfall and Flint, Michigan, broke a 95-year-old record early Wednesday morning when the temperature plummeted to a frigid 19 below zero. The previous record? Minus 10, set in 1914. Meanwhile, it will likely to continue to snow in Chicago in the coming days. Global warming sure is… cold!”
And the dilemma for people who embrace the science on climate change, is that, in contrast to the typical example shown above, data driven climate realities don’t fit on a bumper sticker, nor does the complexity of global warming lend itself to a comprehensive elevator speech. And the manner in which many Americans consume news and information with concentration on quick hits combined with limited attention spans, compounds the difficulty in conveying the reality of a changing global climate.
Adding to the challenge, is the prevalence of wide ranging conspiracy theories and the corresponding politicization of these issues.
If climate change denial is appealing to an individual, they can quickly search Youtube and find endless numbers of videos featuring unsupported claims by people who possess no qualifications in the discipline of climatology or persons who have some background but that have decided to break from the mainstream of climate research for various reasons including the desire to attract an online audience.
SkepticalScience.com analogizes this phenomenon to Big Tobacco’s decades long disinformation campaign:
“The tobacco industry perfected this technique in advertisements citing general scientists, doctors, or educators – people who convey the impression of expertise but have never actually researched the health impacts of smoking.”
With some of these presentations, the ingenuity with which they weave in discredited and alternate facts, results in a very seductive narrative for those who are already caught up in the vortex of falsehoods that accompany climate denial groupthink.
Making the situation even more formidable is the manner in which climate denial intersects with COVID-19 denial, the anti-Vaxx and anti-Mask movements, ancillary conspiracies and the mass delusion that the the 2020 Presidential election was stolen. It’s all of a piece, politically with too many people.
A prime example of this is Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX). Cruz, in response to a report detailing a majority consensus among scientists in the field of research dealing with the atmosphere and climatological studies, demurred that the report “was based on one bogus study.”
If Senator Cruz had done his own homework, he would have discovered that consensus in the majority among scientists, is not based on a single study (nor was that study ‘bogus’) – but by multiple, independent, peer reviewed studies including those by Doran & Zimmerman 2009, Anderegg et al 2010, and Carlton, et al. 2015.
Regardless of all that, your local news daily reports and 10 day weather forecasts are nothing more or less than individual and localized snapshots in time. They do not constitute mid to long term climate trends.
The atmospheric expansion of greenhouse gases effects alterations in previously customary and predictable cycles and patterns, including the polar jet stream, the polar vortex, and ocean conditions such as El Niño or La Niña in the Pacific Ocean.
These conditions are not isolated in terms of the events they combine to produce or the evolving trends they precipitate. When the Arctic warms, it triggers modification of all other critical climate phenomena, as is evident in this graphic:
The planet is smaller than we perceive it to be, when we consider that all these factors are interrelated and do not operate in isolation, even if the stark and record breaking climate episodes lack the appearance of symmetry.
The severity of the winter storm that is wreaking havoc in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri, Kansas and other neighboring states, is consequential to the disruption over time from alterations in land temperatures, atmosphere temperatures and water temperatures resulting from the accumulation of carbon pollution.
But the reason that global warming produces more devastating winter storms is far from incomprehensible. To put the matter in simple terms you can outline to your own climate skeptics – as the climate warms, it results in an increase of atmospheric moisture from the evaporation of the ocean. More moisture, more precipitation, more rain, more snow, more flooding.
And as SkepticalScience.com notes, globally, atmospheric water vapor has increased by about 5% over the 20th century, with most of the increase occurring since 1970 (IPCC AR4 18.104.22.168). This is confirmed by satellites that find the total atmospheric moisture content has been increasing since measurements began in 1988 (Santer 2007).
The same is true with the intensity of the tropical storms we’ve witnessed and the destruction they have wrought. Flooding in the mid-West and unprecedented fires in the West.
Maybe there is another way to talk about climate change that does not frame it as such an abstraction in the minds of so many people. Perhaps we can talk about our health and that of our children – Asthma, cardio-respiratory diseases, the disruption of eco-systems that results in the spread to humans of zoonotic diseases triggering pandemics like COVID-19.
There is also the already measurable emergence of sea level rise that is inundating land that has been inhabited for millennia and taking with it, homes and businesses. Whatever form the appeal takes, we’re going to have to gain converts to the effort to turn this growing threat around.
The consequences of not doing so are too grim and appalling to comprehend.