On Climate Change, Attribution & a Shiny New Bow

If you thought assigning attribution of individual weather disasters to global climate change was tricky business, imagine trying to establish a causal link between specific ecological problems and global warming.

In this commentary in Nature Climate Change, ecologist Camille Parmesan and her co-authors suggest not going there. It’s not that they think global warming doesn’t adversely affect the biological world; it’s just that it’s too difficult to quantify the measurable impact at an individual species level. The authors assert that there is

a complex interplay among habitat destruction, land-use change, exploitation and pollution, in addition to climate change. The emerging view is that interactions among drivers of change are the norm. For example, after a warming event, corals in overfished areas recovered more poorly from bleaching than those with intact food webs. Effects of habitat fragmentation also interact with those of climate change. Northwards expansion of the speckled wood butterfly (Pararge aegeria) in Great Britain progressed rapidly where barriers were minimal, but was hampered in regions where agriculture had rendered woodland habitat patches too scattered for individuals to find.

At a time when ecological problems are increasingly framed and discussed in the context of climate change, Parmesan and her coauthors are going against the grain with this rebuke (my emphasis):

By over-emphasizing the need for rigorous assessment of the specific role of greenhouse-gas forcing in driving observed biological changes, the IPCC effectively yields to the contrarians’ inexhaustible demands for more ‘proof’, rather than advancing the most pressing and practical scientific questions. This focus diverts energies and research funds away from developing crucial adaptation and conservation measures. To improve estimates of future biological impacts we need research focused on how other human stressors exacerbate impacts of climate change. Most importantly from a conservation standpoint, these other stressors are more easily managed on local scales than climate itself, and thus, paradoxically, are crucial to constructing adaptation programmes to cope with anthropogenic climate change.

The argument underlying this commentary was similar to one made two years ago in Slate by Brendan Borrell:

Climate change has the potential to displace the most impoverished human populations and bring about food shortages, flooding, and drought. But from the perspective of saving species, it’s a MacGuffin: a plot device that may impel the tired conservation narrative forward but is hardly a pragmatic strategy for preserving biodiversity.

Not to mix apples and oranges, but there is an interesting parallel with the recent injection of climate change into national security debates. Geoff Dabelko, noting the embrace of “climate security” as a new rhetorical term, in which socio/environmental and energy concerns have been packaged into a climate change box, has offered his own cautionary advice.

Don’t forget ongoing natural resource and conflict problems. The research and policy docket already is crowded with serious conflicts (as well as opportunities for cooperation) over resources, whether they are minerals, water, timber, fish, or land. While climate change certainly poses a large–and potentially catastrophic–threat in many settings, we must not overlook the ongoing problems of rapid population growth, persistent poverty, lack of clean water and sanitation, and infectious diseases that already threaten lives daily. Climate change will likely multiply these threats, but they will continue to exact a high toll even if the climate stabilizes. Presenting climate change as the number one concern and demoting other deadly threats is insensitive to the pressing problems faced by many people in poor and developing countries.

Similar pushback against the “collective fixation on global warming as the mother of all environmental problems” was expressed two years ago by Jonathan Foley:

In the rush to portray the perils of climate change, many other serious issues have been largely ignored. Climate change has become the poster child of environmental crises, complete with its own celebrities and campaigners. But is it so serious that we can afford to overlook the rise of infectious disease, the collapse of fisheries, the ongoing loss of forests and biodiversity, and the depletion of global water supplies?

Anyone seeing a common thread in all these cases?

19 Responses to “On Climate Change, Attribution & a Shiny New Bow”

  1. Thanks Keith for the thoughtful post.  The attribution questions and the policy priority setting questions are distinct. The former is based on specific empirical linkages (or not) and the latter has a range of subjective factors included.  But I do think the common refrain is for viewing climate change and the very serious challenges it presents within a larger ecological as well as social, political, economic context. Natural resource management and climate are part and parcel of the same challenges but there must be room (and priority) for those NRM issues that are not or not yet driven by climate to be prioritized and given resources.  And finally, one avenue for joining up efforts to address them falls within a broad construction of adaptation responses where strengthening capacities can be useful for all these challenges.  That however is another debate about balancing attention between mitigation and adaptation and viewing adaptation efforts within wider poverty (and in some places peacebuilding) agendas.

  2. Menth says:

    Good post. Whether it’s intentional or not I sometimes get the impression from agw activists that a strong emissions reduction policy would be a panacea for all environmental ills. Reminds me of how prohibitionists attributed the bulk of society’s ills to the consumption of alcohol.

  3. Keith Kloor says:


    I’m not going to speak for AGW activists, but I think their belief is (and I’m oversimplifying) that without a strong emissions reduction policy, many of those other environmental ills cannot be made better in the long run.

    The counterargument to the climate change-centric approach is that major environmental problems are not getting the attention they deserve today and if not addressed, will increasingly worsen in the timescale before AGW is even projected to hit hard.

  4. Marlowe Johnson says:

    Can you elaborate?  I’ve never met anyone who has suggested that climate policies will solve all the world’s problems.  Have you? What do renewables and a price on carbon have to do with deforestation in the amazon or overfishing in the Pacific?

  5. Menth says:

    @Keith #3
    Whether I 100% agree with it or not I certainly agree there’s a coherent argument to be made by AGW activists that, as you say:”without a strong emissions reduction policy, many of those other environmental ills cannot be made better in the long run.”

    I think what I’ve done is conflate AGW activists with environmental activists as a whole. Environmental activists (and others) appear to have gone “all in” on  c02 as the defining cause to rally behind, de-emphasizing other worthy causes as your article points out.

    @Marlowe 4
    While I recognize that nobody is explicitly stating that “climate policies will solve all the world’s problems”, to me that is what is implied when everything that happens under the sun from Japanese earthquakes to civil strife to the waxing and waning of frog populations is attributed to global warming no matter how tenuous the evidence.

    I don’t want to get into strawman territory here because I reconize that individually many environmentalists views are far more nuanced than that, but that’s the overall impression I am given.

  6. Jack Hughes says:

    @Marlowe 4
    How about some people very near here who
    1. Never highlight good news stories. (eg “The whales are saved”)
    2. Highlight several predictions every single day of bad things that may happen in the future.
    3. Always include a climate link in these bad omen stories.

  7. Jack Hughes says:

    Peter Taylor is an old-school enviro who laments the way that most enviros have been hijacked:
    “…a small group of men working behind computer screens created a virtual reality in which the future climate became the enemy of mankind.
    “That original cabal was likely innocent of any underhand motivation and genuinely believed mankind faced a threat and that they would sound the alert and potentially stave off disaster”

  8. Marlowe Johnson says:

    Let  me know when the tin foil hat sale is on Jack.

  9. kdk33 says:

    Instructions for making tin foil hats can be found here:


    Funny thing, though, there is no mention of CO2. 

  10. kdk33 says:

    More information here:


    Aluminum foil deflector beanie – to the well informed.

  11. Heraclitus says:

    Menth #5, you say “that’s the overall impression I am given”, but I question who it is that is giving that impression. I recognise this as the narrative that is being created about those who express serious concern about the impacts of anthropogenic climate change. The idea that anyone thinks climate is the only problem we face is nonsensical – though I would agree with Keith’s characterisation in #3. So yes, I see a common thread in these comments, they are all (possibly, it is difficult to say without reading through in deatil, which I haven’t done) falling in to a narrative that I don’t believe is fully justified in reality.

    I would also say that one of the reasons that CO2 emissions may seem to be over-emphasised is that this is an area that people have direct personal control over – I can make changes in my life that reduce my CO2 emissions, but it is very difficult to impact on land-use, population growth or other things that affect climate or indeed many other environmental issues. As a result this is the most widely publicised message, but primarily because it is directed at the public.

  12. Thanks for this piece, Keith.
    It is time to move on from a narrow focus on the cost/benefit of this or that global problem all else held equal. The presumption that these problems are decoupled is nonsensical. Our problems don’t add together so much as they multiply together.  Climate is only a piece of the puzzle.
    I disagree with Heraclitus about the reason for the focus on climate change over the issues. It is not the case that individual behavior has much impact. As has been much stressed of late, the behavior of the developing world, notably India and China, is far more important than anything we do collectively in the west, never mind individually. Individual action can be inspirational and thus productive in a leadership sense, but a quiet change of lightbulbs in one household is a gesture so nearly empty as not to be worth quibbling about.
    But this doesn’t mean that climate should be compared in size to the other problems, and proportionate resources dedicated to it, as Lomborg alleges. It is precisely because the problems are coupled that this is not the case. Our present emissions trajectory is bad enough that it will impact most other large scale problems. From the point of view of governance, climate change is more of a multiplier on the other problems than it is a distinct, separate issue.
    Climate is of special interest because the outlines of the problem are so well-defined and clear compared to the others. After all, it is a single number we need to get under control. If we cannot get a grip on this problem to any manageable extent despite the clarity of it, how are we to have any hope of addressing the others?

  13. Heraclitus says:

    Michael, I think you’re wrong about the impact of individual behaviour. Of course taken in isolation changing your bulbs will be negligible, but the collective impact of changing to low-energy bulbs can have, and indeed already has had, a significant impact on emissions. Your actions can’t change the world, but if you don’t take those actions then the world won’t change. This works at an international level as well. Of course a country like the UK cannot reverse global emissions directly by its own actions, but we cannot expect countries like China and India to make significant sacrifices if we, who are already so much greater offenders, are not already demonstrating actions to change our own behaviour.

  14. JohnB says:

    MT said; “After all, it is a single number we need to get under control.”

    Michael, I think that this is one of the conceptual areas where the warmers and sceptics differ. Even if we found a magic power source and reduced our emissions to zero and reduced the CO2 level back to 300ppm the climate will not be under control.

    World temps will still rise and fall, growing seasons will still be longer and shorter and animals will still change their migration pattern. Rainfall patterns will still change.

    I know you know better, but it does seem to be an underlying theme that if we get CO2 “under control” then everything else will work out fine. It won’t, you know it and so does anyone who has even remotely looked at historical changes in climate.

    We need much more information on how crops, fish and everything else reacts to CC, but there is an emphasis problem. The logic is being presented something like this;
    1. “A” has changed.
    2. That “A” has changed is a problem.
    3. “A” has changed due to CC.
    4. CC is caused by CO2 emissions.
    Therefore reduce CO2 and “A” will stop changing and the problem will go away.

    By tying everything to CC and CO2 a lot of attention is being misdirected.

    Let’s look at the things that reducing CO2 won’t do.
    1. It won’t clean up pollution from the air.
    2. It won’t clean pollution from the water.
    3. It won’t effect fish stocks.
    4. It won’t prevent land degradation/erosion.
    5. It won’t prevent rising salinity.
    6. It won’t reduce poverty.
    7. It won’t reduce world hunger.
    8. It won’t stop the climate from changing.

    I will grant that there might be some effect for 1 and 2 by reducing pollutants from coal fired stations (mercury, etc) but those pollutants could be reduced without moving away from coal so it’s a null argument.

    Basically, CO2 reduction will not stop or effect any ecological problems we might have. Each problem will have to be solved in its own way. Land degradation due to poor farming techniques will be solved by better farming methods and the same goes for all the other problems I listed.

    You’ve also shot yourself in the foot a bit by saying CC “is a multiplyer on the other problems”. What you’ve just said is that if we solve the other problems as they come up then the problem being “multipied” by CC has a value of zero. Anything multiplied by zero is zero.

    And this is the conceptual difference. If the climate is going to change whether we reduce CO2 or not, then what is the point of worrying about CC? The only reasonable thing to do is accept that it will change and try to adapt to it.

  15. Willis Eschenbach says:

    Marlowe Johnson Says: 
    March 22nd, 2011 at 11:26 am
    Can you elaborate?  I’ve never met anyone who has suggested that climate policies will solve all the world’s problems.  Have you? What do renewables and a price on carbon have to do with deforestation in the amazon or overfishing in the Pacific?</blockquote>
    I can elaborate. A friend and I were living in Fiji. We were concerned that the foreign fleets were basically pillaging the ocean. He went to Greenpeace to see if they would help.
    They told him they couldn’t help us, they were too busy fighting CO2 …
    So, that’s what carbon has to do with fish in the Pacific. The fight against carbon is killing fish in the Pacific, because Greenpeace has gone off the rails.

  16. Paul Baer says:

    Just dropped by to see what had in fact been said over here about the Parmesan et al. paper, since Keith pointed to this when Judy Curry raised it at Climate Etc.
    John B is of course correct that climate “will not be under our control” even if we stop anthropogenic CO2 emissions. Nor will we end poverty, etc. Speaking of myself as a mainstream environmentalist (albeit on the leftish side) who is also an expert on AGW, I would never say either of those things or sign my name to something saying them.
    However, the question “if the climate is going to change whether we reduce CO2 or not, then what is the point of worrying about CC” has a really obvious answer: if climate is likely to go up or down a degree or so every century (notwithstanding the onset of the next ice age), it still may not be a good idea to do something that could raise it three or four degrees in one hundred to two hundred years.
    At this point its reasonable to ask how likely that is, and how bad it would be. But if you don’t realize that most people who study the problem think that’s a real possibility, you’re don’t understand the first thing about the debate.

  17. Quiet Waters says:

    “A 2005 study by Root and co-authors showed that observed changes in timing of biological events (such as breeding or flowering dates) only correlated well with simulated changes of climate when the models factored in anthropogenic climate change as well as natural climate variability. In a separate study, Rosenzweig et al. showed that global-scale spatial patterns of biological changes since 1970 have corresponded better with observed temperature changes than with simulated changes from models lacking the human-induced climate component. These studies, then, support earlier analyses showing coherence of biological impacts, and further point to anthropogenic climate change as a likely driver. Is it fruitful, then, to continue to pursue deconstruction of biological responses into those due to natural or anthropogenic climate change?”

    From the Parmesan comment linked above. They do not say don’t do it because it’s “tricky” or “too difficult” as Keith spins this, but because it has already been done & is no longer an interesting question. As they go on to say: “What, then, are the most productive avenues for biological attribution research? We propose concentrating on assessment of the interacting roles of climate and other environmental factors, regardless of the causes of the climate events or trends.”


    Root et al. is here: http://www.pnas.org/content/102/21/7465

    Rosenzweig et al. here: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v453/n7193/full/nature06937.html

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