On Revkin, Romm and the Zero Sum Climate Debate

The response by some climate scientists and climate bloggers to a nuanced perspective on the tornado/climate change issue reveals just how zero sum the climate debate remains in some corners.

In a follow-up to this superb post, Andy Revkin draws attention to a missing component in recent tornado-related commentary from some prominent voices in the climate community:

Given continued assertions that human-driven global warming could be playing a role in the havoc down south, it’s also worth revisiting something that Walker S. Ashley, a meteorologist at Northern Illinois University, said last week on Dot Earth:

The heart of the matter lies with a growing and increasingly vulnerable population. That is what is driving “disasters.”

There’s no doubt that Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University is right when he says “climate change is present in every single meteorological event“ “” in the sense that the buildup of greenhouses gases is a background nudge everywhere.

But that’s a meaningless assertion without asking whether there is evidence of a meaningful influence “” meaning enough of a nudge to the atmosphere that the contribution from greenhouse gases is relevant to policy and personal choices, in this case in tornado zones.

For the moment, there’s scant evidence to support this at any level “” in the basic data on storm patterns or in tallies of damage and deaths. I’m not denying it’s possible, just that it’s relevant.

It’s fine for Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research to say he feels “it is irresponsible not to mention climate change“ when discussing tornado outbreaks. Everyone’s entitled to his or her view.

My response would be that it is irresponsible not to mention the need to reduce inherent and avoidable human vulnerability to tornadoes in the crowding South, particularly in low-income regions with flimsy housing. I saw barely a mention of these realities in recent posts by climate-oriented bloggers on the tornado outbreak.

Revkin goes on to lay out why the issue of “avoidable human vulnerability to tornados” is important to stress–even for those who decide to emphasize a climate change angle.

He also recalls a five-year old  statement from leading researchers on a similar debate over hurricanes and climate change, which he wrote about in this 2006 story:

Ten climate experts who are sharply divided over whether global warming is intensifying hurricanes say that this question, a focus of Congressional hearings, news reports and the recent Al Gore documentary, is a distraction from “the main hurricane problem facing the United States.”

That problem, the experts said yesterday in a statement, is an ongoing “lemming-like march to the sea” in the form of unabated coastal development in vulnerable places, and in the lack of changes in government policies and corporate and individual behavior that are driving the trend.

Whatever the relationship between hurricanes and climate, experts say, hurricanes are hitting the coasts, and houses should not be built in their path.

In his current Dot Earth post, Revkin then says that he’d “love to see a similar statement now from meteorologists, climatologists and other specialists studying trends in tornado zones. Any takers?”

In the comments, Peter Gleick, who was among those who sought last week to score political points over the tragic tornadoes in the South, will apparently not be one of the takers:

Andy, disturbing that you seem to think that it is one versus another (growing populations, or bad housing, or coastal development VERSUS the risks of climate change). It is simply both, and we have to deal with both. No climatologist argues that we should ignore population or bad building design. Yet you argue we should ignore climate influence.

No, Revkin argues that the issue of human vulnerability in areas notable for extreme weather should be a more prominent part of the climate discussion.

There was also predictable pushback from Joe Romm, who wrote:

Revkin supports a too-little, too-late energy technology development strategy can’t possibly avert catastrophic global warming “” nor can it generate funds needed for adaptation.  So it is hypocritical of him to attack others for not constantly saying how much we need to improve housing for those in tornado alley.

That’s precious coming from someone who “constantly” characterizes even the mildest criticism of any of his own un-nuanced perspectives on climate matters as an “attack.”

Regardless, it’s too bad that when tragedy strikes Romm only sees fit to use his widely read blog to warn of a future hell and high water, when he could also be talking up the need for measures that would lessen the hell visited on people today.

65 Responses to “On Revkin, Romm and the Zero Sum Climate Debate”

  1. Menth says:

    The death tolls of these climate related disasters will only keep rising until we all move to Bill McKibben’s farm and live off the land.

  2. grypo says:

    I’m confused about the logic here.  Are we now supposed to get worked up about climate scientists not being experts in urban sprawl or housing architecture?  Or because Gleick or Mann or Trenberth aren’t stating the obvious, that if large tornadoes are coming, we should get the hell out of the way and not live there?  Is this really the new vacuous complaint?  This is so strange I don’t even know what the point is supposed to be.  Yes, I’ll answer for all sane humans everywhere, that living in tornado alley in anything other than a WWII German tank is risky.  And, for all other sane people, it is also risky to pump the amount of carbon into the atmosphere, that we do, for many more reasons.  Of course, we should not complain about those who blatantly ignore that risk because, ya know, that one is harder to punch hippies with.
     
    I don’t know how to make this any more easier for the media to understand.  Science is unable to tell us exactly what is going to happen, but there a few a priori facts about extra energy, extra moisture, and rising temperature you may want to look into.  Science knows everything will change.  This poses undeniable risk.  Oh, yes, and don’t live in a trailer in the South anymore.   Can we talk about it now?  Is the media done with this misdirected noise?

  3. Pascvaks says:

    There are countless shades of grey, and black, and white… and sorting them all out is a pain, sooooooooo… we shouldn’t be surprised if we take shortcuts, its only “natural” to judge people by little things within the first 30 seconds of making their aquaintance.  We are only human after all.

    PS: Everyone’s trying to sell something.  It’s the ones who want more than our money, and who use shells, that we need to be really scared of.  “Freedon isn’t free!”, is very true.

    PPS: Has anyone else been getting the feeling that Mother Nature is going to drop a few more bombs like last week and pretty soon?  And she seems to be getting a little more angry at us?  And there’s not a lot we can do?…  I know!  I know!  Just my imagination!  OK!  Right!  There is no “Mother Nature”! 

  4. Tom Gray says:

    Peilke Junior has been saying this fr years and, as a result, is despised by the climate science establishment.
     
    Why is this news? You can read all about this in Peilke Junior’s book “The Climate Fix”

  5. Tom Gray says:

    re 2
     
    =========
    Are we now supposed to get worked up about climate scientists not being experts in urban sprawl or housing architecture?
    ================

    This is the issue of mediation versus adaptation and climate scientists have been presenting themselves as experts in this for years. Look at how they react to Peilke Junior’s work or the work of climate scientists who indicate that CO2 plays only a part in AGW.

    If however you are saying that climate scientists should confine themselves to the specialized fiedls in which they have knowledge beyond that of a layman then there will be a great many people who will atree with you.

  6. harrywr2 says:

    grypo Says:
    <i> Are we now supposed to get worked up about climate scientists not being experts in urban sprawl or housing architecture?</i>
     
    The unstated ‘elephant in the room’ is that being poor already exposes people to significant risk to extreme weather events.  Making energy more expensive doesn’t have a history of alleviating poverty.
    Is it better for people who live in Mobile Home Parks to spend on extra $20/month on electricity in order to minimize risks of future extreme weather events or is it better to pay an extra $20/month for a ‘safe room’ at the mobile home park?
    Obviously, tenured professors at Major Universities making 6 figures don’t have to make such decisions, but people living in Mobile Home Parks do.
     
     
     
     

  7. Sashka says:

    @ grypo

    Yes you’re clearly confused. None of the climate scientists ever got a degree in climate science simply because it doesn’t exists. All these people are meteorologists, oceanographers, mathematicians or physicists by training. They became climate scientists because they are able and curious. You knew that, right? Now, it doesn’t really take an expert to see that the damage from a hurricane or tornado hit is directly proportional to the number of houses in the affected area and strongly depends on the quality of construction. Someone who is smart enough to become a climate scientist should be able to understand that. Comparing the risks from overpopulation and poor quality construction vs. (possible) intensification of hurricanes or tornadoes (a few percent,  perhaps 10% even though you’ll have hard time supporting that) one can see what is more important here. Lest you get even more confused I’ll repeat: the risks add up. The point is that one is large compared to the other.

  8. Marlowe Johnson says:

    Keith I find it odd that you neglect this passage from Romm:
     
    So it is hypocritical of him to attack others for not constantly saying how much we need to improve housing for those in tornado alley.  Obviously we do, and that’s a great thing for blogs that don’t focus on climate to write about (my emphasis).  Just as obviously we need an aggressive strategy for reducing GHGs that also supports real adaptation.


    Revkin’s argument that we shouldn’t talk about the impact of global warming on extreme weather if we don’t propose efforts to reduce the devastation caused by extreme weather today would be like saying we shouldn’t talk about the impact of global warming on the poor unless we propose solutions to poverty today.  It the Bjorn Lomborg two-step.”
     
    Romm is focused on climate change and writes stories with that focus in mind.  Why is this a bad thing?
     
    It seems to me that your beef in this context is with the MSM, who use climate change as a ‘hook’ rather than with climate bloggers or scientists.

  9. grypo says:

    “Now, it doesn’t really take an expert to see that the damage from a hurricane or tornado hit is directly proportional to the number of houses in the affected area and strongly depends on the quality of construction.”

    Yes, this is why complaining about scientists not saying bleeding obvious things about living in tornado zones is misdirected.   It’s just more complicit piling on of people who say things that people don’t want to hear.  I’m sure if Trenberth had any grand ideas about how to control population growth, design urban planning, or  tornado compliant building code, he’d share it.  So I’ll speak for all of them, as I’m sure they won’t mind, “We should pay attention to the present problem of people in tornado zones.”  K?  Now can we stop fooling ourselves and discuss these separate issues as they should be?

  10. jeffn says:

    Marlowe,
    I think this is actually a pretty obvious issue- if your trailer home just got smashed by a perfectly normal tornado, Joe Romm is there to comfort you by telling you the tornado was your fault and we need a gas tax hike so that, in his unscientific estimation, there might be fewer tornadoes in your town in a hundred years or so.
    Pielke Jr., meanwhile, is pointing out that the actual science shows that the tornado is just like last year’s and you probably have a greater need for a new house, one that’s built for the normal tornado activity for your region.
    It’s crazy, I know, but people who have or might lose their homes to tornadoes are noticeably reluctant to adopt Romm’s approach and are taking Pielke’s approach whether you like it or not.

  11. Tom Fuller says:

    Mobile home parks are like bowling pins set up for the gods.
     
    Revkin’s piece is so non-controversial as to be pamphlet material.
     
    Romm’s criticism boils down to, “You should have let me dictate your article for you.”

  12. Sashka says:

    @ grypo

    complaining about scientists not saying bleeding obvious things about living in tornado zones is misdirected

    Disagree. Instead of stating the obvious they are saying what is relatively unimportant and may even be wrong completely. If they wanted to honestly discuss the risks they would add the obvious to possible for the perspective. But they are only interested in alarmism.

    Speaking of Trenberth, he doesn’t have any practical idea about how to reduce CO2 either. Nor does he know for a fact that CO2 is a factor. He is just speculating.

    @ Marlowe

    This is a bad thing as any half-truth is. In this case, it’s a much smaller fraction of the truth. Possibly zero.

  13. PDA says:

    I’ll be a taker. Trenberth should have called for the construction of FEMA 320-compliant public shelters in Tornado Alley, and told all residents to purchase weather radios and go sleep at neighbors’ houses any time a tornado watch was announced.
     
    This probably would have been interpreted as “blaming the victim” and completely ignored, but the fact that Trenberth can’t win no matter what he says shouldn’t have stopped him from doing the right thing.

  14. Keith Kloor says:

    @8

    He doesn’t make that argument. Read his post again.

    Revkin’s argument that we shouldn’t talk about the impact of global warming on extreme weather if we don’t propose efforts to reduce the devastation caused by extreme weather today…

    He doesn’t make that argument. Read his post again. What’re doing is buying into the zero sum mentality pushed by Romm and Gleick et al.

    Why do I not find that odd.

    Sashka (12) nails it here:

    Instead of stating the obvious they are saying what is relatively unimportant and may even be wrong completely. If they wanted to honestly discuss the risks they would add the obvious to possible for the perspective. But they are only interested in alarmism.

  15. Tom Fuller says:

    I doubt if it’s intentional at all, but once again the consensus position, addressing the 1% that global warming may have contributed at the expense of the 99% caused by other factors, seems once again to disadvantage a specific set of society.
     
    As with previous arguments about malaria, hydrology, drought, agriculture and a host of other topics, the global warming consensus seems to insist that global warming, which is at most a small contributor to these problems at present, be addressed by mass mobilization of resources in the hope of societal gain in a century’s time, instead of addressing the more mundane forces that are the primary causes of each of these several problems.
     
    The polar bear, although not human, is the easiest example. To save the polar bear we could gear up to fight global warming on a massive scale. Or we could quit shooting 1,000 of them every year.
     
    To fight malaria we could fight global warming. Or we could help countries develop resources and resilience to replicate what other countries achieved during a period of measured, not predicted, global warming.
     
    Bjorn Lomborg makes the case at greater length in his writings, for which he has been continuously vilified over the past decade. But he was right and still is.
     
    We can fight tornadoes of 2100 by massive commitment to the climate for the next 90 years. We can also help the mobile home dwellers of the United States become more resilient and better prepared.
     
    I’m not saying they are mutually exclusive. I’m saying that the critical path for achieving success is clear to everyone except the Joe Romms of this world.

  16. grypo says:


    Why do I not find that odd.

    Sashka (12) nails it here:
    Instead of stating the obvious they are saying what is relatively unimportant and may even be wrong completely. If they wanted to honestly discuss the risks they would add the obvious to possible for the perspective. But they are only interested in alarmism.”

    No, nothing was actually nailed.  If you still think that what they are saying is unimportant, then that is a problem.  If you think that stating RISK is wrong then that is a problem that you need to address, certainly not the messengers.   If you can’t see this as two separate issues, and you represent the public, then we all have a major problem.  I give up.  There’s really no way to get these points through.  Both are NOW problems.  Both have different solutions that require different people to speak on.  Please stop trying to shut one of them up for no reason.  Please explain your position with better logic.

  17. Marlowe Johnson says:

    @14
    Could you repost?  I honestly don’t understand what you’re trying to say.  While you’re at it, could you clarify by what you mean ‘zero sum game’ in this context.  I usually think of it as someone has to win and someone has to lose, but I don’t get how that ‘mentality’ is at play here.
     
    @15
    “the global warming consensus seems to insist that global warming, which is at most a small contributor to these problems at present, be addressed by mass mobilization of resources in the hope of societal gain in a century’s time, instead of addressing the more mundane forces that are the primary causes of each of these several problems.”
     
    This is the Lomborg strawman two-step.  Advocates of agressive climate mitigation policies are not advocating AGAINST policies to address these other issues.  You appear to be engaging in the ‘zero sum mentality” Keith laments.  Careful :).

  18. Keith Kloor says:

    grypo, you might as well give up, because I don’t understand what you’re going on about. And who’s trying to shut anybody up? Certainly not me or Andy. (And rich in irony, considering who works tirelessly to intimidate and/or shut people up who go off the reservation.)

    The discussion here is about context and proportion, simple as that.

  19. Keith Kloor says:

    Getting into semantic games with you, Marlowe, is so not worth my time.

     

     

     

  20. Marlowe Johnson says:

    Keep those blinders on I guess Keith.  FWIW I found both Revkin and Romm’s posts interesting.  Here is what Revkin says that got Romm riled up:
     
    “My response would be that it is irresponsible not to mention the need to reduce inherent and avoidable human vulnerability to tornadoes in the crowding South, particularly in low-income regions with flimsy housing. I saw barely a mention of these realities in recent posts by climate-oriented bloggers on the tornado outbreak.”
     
    Romm’s post is about the science linking tornados and climate change.  Revkin’s is about risk management and tornadoes.  Two separate, but related topics.  I think Romm’s response to Revkin’s backhanded criticism was appropriate if a little over the top in true Rommian fashion. You don’t.  Fine, but at least *try* and accept that people who read climate-oriented blogs are not offended when the posts focus on the connections (or lack thereof) between climate change and the given topic and don’t provide a 10 variable regression analysis of all relevant factors.  I find your position bizarre and not terribly logical.  if anything it seems that you’re the one engaging in a ‘zero sum game mentality’, although in you’re case it’s of the pox-on-anybody-but-third way/TBI/Revkin variety…
     
    “Revkin argues that the issue of human vulnerability in areas notable for extreme weather should be a more prominent part of the climate discussion.”
     
    At the risk of getting into semantics Keith, what does this actually mean?  Discussion among who?  Planners? Media? Scientists? Insurance comapnies?  It seems to me that climate scientists are making appropriately caveated statemetns about the link between climate change and human vulnerability.  Why would one expect them to make comments on topics that are outside their area of expertise (e.g. building codes, insurance policies, municipal/state emergency planning etc)?

  21. Sashka says:

    grypo,

    Several people are telling you essentially the same thing in an exceedingly clear English. Yet you don’t get it. The only logical conclusion is that you chose to block the message, consciously or not.

  22. PDA says:

    Semantics is the study of meaning. It would seem like without an agreed-upon semantic basis for this conversation we’ll all continue to flounder.
     
    Zero-sum has a fairly unambiguous definition: as Marlowe Johnson pointed out, it means there is one winner (+1) and one loser (-1). Since it’s not worth Keith’s time (so not worth it), we’re presumably not going to find out what he means when he says the debate is “zero sum.”
     
    Gleick says that both the risk management piece and the science piece can and should be tackled in tandem (in other words, they’re not mutually exclusive, zero-sum actions). Revkin agrees that both the risk management piece and the science piece need to be tackled in tandem, but argues for a higher profile for the risk management and adaptation.
     
    Am I the only one who sees more agreement than disagreement here? Or am I just being “semantic?”

  23. grypo says:

    “And who’s trying to shut anybody up? ”

    An example would be saying something like:

    “In the comments, Peter Gleick, who was among those who sought last week to score political points over the tragic tornadoes in the South, will apparently not be one of the takers:”

    “The discussion here is about context and proportion, simple as that.”

    First, yes, it about proportion and one’s inability to understand what the proportion is.   Second, it isn’t that simple.  It’s 2 different subjects, as Marlow said.  For whatever reason, it seems, the prevailing knowledge that I am not privy to, is that one must come at the expense of the other.  This is what I think needs to be explained logically.  Or I give.

  24. grypo says:

    Sashka,
     
    I am being told that “The Advocates” are somehow making it difficult to tackle one issue, while tackling a totally different issue, just because the issues are somewhat related.  I’ve yet to get a reason for that.

  25. Sashka says:

    I’m not sure why you addressing this to me.

  26. Arthur Smith says:

    I’m sorry, I’m not getting what the proposed solution is. Every American living in this region of the US should move out? And the whole point about climate change is – that’s historical data, but *we don’t know* what the changing climate will do to that graph, almost assuredly it will change. People who’ve never seen tornadoes in their lives may start to see them because of climate change. People who used to get them all the time may not get them any more. Climate change means the climate is changing. Trenberth and Romm and everybody else’s point is – maybe we should try working on slowing down the rate of change, before it does stuff we really really really don’t like.

  27. Sashka says:

    Arthur,

    The proposed (partial) solution (to the tornado vulnerability problem) is explained in very plain English but I’ll repeat: to improve the building codes and alert systems and to require community shelters. I hope it is clear enough now.

    Now about the rest of it. The whole point about the science is the power of prediction. With climate change, we don’t have it yet. There is no reason to devote huge resources to slowing down the rate of change before we at least know what that rate is.

  28. kdk33 says:

    The data does not exist to show that CO2 has any measurable effect on tornadoes.  Yet we are being warned about the risk?!  Really?  Seriously?

    We must act now, if we wait for evidence, it will be too late.

    Sad.

  29. Sashka says:

    @ kdk

    No, you got it wrong. Risk means uncertainty. Even though we don’t know for a fact that warming translates into more or stronger tornadoes we also don’t know the opposite. It is perfectly possible that they are right. There is a risk. But it doesn’t follow that we must act now before we quantify it.

  30. Arthur Smith says:

    Sure, let’s improve building codes and warning systems and require shelters. The last two require tax dollars, though, and the first requires expenditures by everybody living in these regions. Will these things happen? Beats me.
    But worse than that – we don’t know *where* a changing climate will require these improved systems. Do we improve them everywhere? Isn’t that a waste of money? What’s the cost/benefit here? People seem to be all on one side or the other of something that’s very unclear, and willing to risk an awful lot for the relatively minor costs of mitigation.

  31. Sashka says:

    So far there is no evidence of systematic change in tornado occurrence patterns. Therefore it is best to require these changes right where they are needed now based on available observations. Surely it should have been done long ago but better later than never. Even if the patterns change it will happen very slowly. There will be time to adjust.

    WRT costs, automated calls on registered cell phones would cost almost nothing. Community shelters would probably be relatively affordable. Changing the building codes is certainly an expensive. Maybe it’s an overkill.

  32. Tom Gray says:

    In Australia, there were predictions of continued droughts due to AGW. As such, building was allowed into what was considered to be “former” flood plains. There was development allowed along stream courses. Then the rains came. AGW projections should not be taken as gospel.
     
    Perhaps what is needed for AGW adaptation is just adherence to conventional ideas of  prudence. Buildings should not be allowed along flood plains. Houses in tornado prone areas should have access to shelters either within themselves or in close proximity. Perhaps AGW adaptation would not be so expensive after all.

  33. PDA says:

    In Australia, there were predictions of continued droughts due to AGW.
    AR4:
    A range of GCM and regional modelling studies in recent years have identified a tendency for daily rainfall extremes to increase under enhanced greenhouse conditions in the Australian region (e.g., Hennessy et al., 1997; Whetton et al., 2002; McInnes et al., 2003; Watterson and Dix, 2003; Hennessy et al., 2004b; Suppiah et al., 2004; Kharin and Zwiers, 2005).
    h/t grypo

  34. Tom Gray says:

    re 33
     
    I really do not see how that addresses the point that I made. Policies were made in reliance on AGW science. Now you say that that AGW science was incorrect. How does that affect the buildings that were built in flood plains?
     
     
    I keep thinking of Homer Simpson and “‘D’Oh!!” when I read statements like that in 33. I’ve made comments elsewhere that what the AGW movement needs is a good Marx Brothers comedy. Maybe they would not take themselves so seriously. In “A Day at teh Races”, Groucho is audited. It is hilarious.

  35. Tim Lambert says:

    ToM Gray claims “As such, building was allowed into what was considered to be “former” flood plains”
    This is 100% fiction.

  36. grypo says:

    “Policies were made in reliance on AGW science.”

    I have serious doubts about that.  And whether or not this is the case, the policy maker was quite mistaken about what is and isn’t predicted, and VERY wrong about the timescales (read #33 link).  And make sure you’ve got your regional areas correct.  Australia is big.  Also include uncertainties.  Adaption is a bitch at this point. And please be careful about who you blame for such things.

  37. Tom Gray says:

    re 37
     
    The people who saw their possessions being washed away in a massive flood due to  a non-record breaking storm, I suppose we can say to them that that we were mistaken about AGW.

  38. grypo says:

    Are you not seeing what has been written?  The only mistake is the assertion that development on flood plains had anything to do with real AGW prediction.  I have to ask why you keep pushing this.

  39. kdk33 says:

    No Shashka,

    You are incorrect.  Risk does not mean uncertainty.  There is no evidence that tornadoes are increasing, therefore there is no risk – or more precisely, no increased risk due to CO2 emissions.  None. Period.

    You are appealing to ignorance, and rather perfectly formally I must say.  Much of climate science is similarly based.

    Some people think CO2 will increase tornadoes, and they are free to offer evidence in support of that theory.  A lack of evidence to disprove that theory means absolutely nothing.  Appealing to that lack of evidence (ignorance) to support the theory (“we also don’t know the opposite”, as you say) is a formal appeal to ignorance.  

    I am utterly amazed at how often this elemectary logical fallacy is invoked to support various aspects of the climate sciences.

    Sad.

  40. Sashka says:

    @ PDA (33)
     
    Who cares about GCM results? They are unrelated to reality as far as precipitation is concerned.
     
    @ kdk
     
    If you have better definition of risk please go ahead. Second, I was not simply appealing to ignorance. The argument in favor of increasing tornado intensity makes physical sense. Not all plausible physical arguments prove correct but some do.

  41. kdk33 says:

    “Not all plausible physical arguments prove correct but some do”

    And we distinguish those that do from those that don’t by collecting evidence.  Evidence in the affirmative.  Not by requiring that our pet (and to us perfectly plausible) arguments be proved incorrect, which would be an appeal to ignorance.

    It seems to me that you are defining risk in the MT context: the less certain we are about climate the more we must consider extreme consequences.  This ia also a formal appeal to ignorance.  MT (and others) have a pet theory that CO2 will lead to extremely dangerous consequences.  They invoke an inability to eliminate these consequence – an inability to disprove their pet theory – as reason to take these more seriously.  This is, of course, perfect nonsense.

    Lookit.  Long before humans were pumping CO2 into the atmosphere we had bad weather – floods, storms, droughts, tornadoes, hurricanes, the whole nine yards – and we had climate changes.  Furthermore, our understanding of those forces is very imcomplete.  There is no need to invoke CO2 to explain bad weather.  If you want to blame CO2 for bad weather, fine.  Prove it. 

  42. Sashka says:

    Three observations.
    1. You don’t have another definition of risk.
    2. You are putting words in my mouth.
    3. You are barking at a wrong tree.
     
    Last attempt. When we are done collecting evidence there will be no more uncertainty or risk. The hypothesis will be either proven or disproven. At this point there is a chance that they are correct, as there is chance that they are not. That’s an uncertainty. In the event that currently uncertain outcome will prove to be unfavorable the results will be unpleasant. That’s a risk. What’s so hard about it?

  43. kdk33 says:

    No, Shashka, that is nonsense.  And this is the nonsense at the heart of much of what we’re told about climate science.

    Having a theory says absolutely nothing. Not one thing.  The only thing that speaks is evidence, and evidence in the affirmative. 

    You are conjuring risk from thin air.  You have a theory and there is no evidence to disprove it, and from that (which amounts to absolutely nothing) you conjure risk. 

    I have a theory that meglushians living under the surface of the earth are manipulating ocean currents to cause bad weather, hence tornadoes.  You have no evidence to disprove it.  How shall we deal with the meglushian risk?

    You will counter: but that’s silly, the melushian theory isn’t physically plausable.  I will counter: the CO2 theory is silly.  As you pointed out, many plausable theories turn out to be incorrect; I’ll point out that implausable theories are sometimes correct (quantum stuff, for example) It is evidence that decides – evidence in the affirmative because lack of evidence in the negative is… well lack of evidence and counts for zero; that’s why appeals to ignorance are logical fallacies.   

    If the evidence says that we cannot measure an increase in tornadoes, then *real* science says there is no risk.  In *climate* science, this takes a backseat to the BELIEF that certain theories are correct, so we’re told we can’t measure the change… YET.  This is religion.

  44. kdk33 says:

    There is no compelling evidence that tornados are becoming more severe or more common, or for that matter, less severe or less common.

    Yes MT.  Science starts and stops right there.  The rest is conjecture, speculation, sermonizing, fear-mongering, whatever-you-want-to-call-it.  But it ain’t science, my friend.

  45. kdk33 says:

    Actually MT, I think your link is wonderfully instructive and I would encourage all CaS readers to check it out.

    MT, right up front, spells out that the real world data does not argue for changing tornadoe patterns.  Moreover, tornadoe outbreaks like this are not unprecedented.

    Yet we are treated to the rationale under which we should BELIEVE that climate change is impacting tornadoes  – even though the effect is invisible.  We are invited to believe the invisible.

    It’s a ghost story.

  46. PDA says:

    I really do not see how that addresses the point that I made
     
    @Tom Gray: Clearly.
    The excerpt from AR4 says exactly the opposite of what you seem to think it says. I even put the relevant part in bold. Here’s a hint: look near the words “rainfall” and “increase.”
    I find this kind of cognitive dissonance really fascinating.
     
    Who cares about GCM results? They are unrelated to reality as far as precipitation is concerned.


    @Sashka, the assertion was made that climate science did not predict increased rainfall. Climate science predicted increased rainfall. So the assertion was in error. That’s all I was trying to say.

  47. Sashka says:

    @ PDA

    Fine. I thought you were claiming it as some sort of confirmation of theory by observations. If it were just an instance of prediction increased rainfall – no problem. Climate models in different studies “predicted” everything just about anything that can ever occur, certainly drought more often than increased rainfall.

    @ kdk

    Sorry, I have no use for you. You need to talk to NYJ more often You two are worth each other.

  48. kdk misses that last month was a severe outlier, far exceeding the number of tornados in any previous April, and exceeding the number of tornados in any previous month. It’s how to think about severe outliers that I am trying to raise as a serious question.
     
    Everybody is talking about tornado trends, when that is not the issue at all. The issue is severe outliers and how to think about them. Statistics are not helpful in such cases.
     
    Some people would like to suggest that we not think about things that are too rare to do useful statistics on, at all. I think that’s an awfully convenient way to dismiss unprecedented disasters.
     

  49. kdk33 says:

    MT:
    Please define, without invoking statistics:  outlier.

  50. Sashka says:

    Assuming that you are not suggesting comparing April vs. January or other months, we have relatively small number of observations. Say, do we really know how many tornadoes occurred in April of 1944? Probably not. Thus calling what happened  a “severe outlier” could be misleading. It seems to be an outlier indeed but there is now way to tell how severe it is. Same goes for “unprecedented”. I don’t know how to think of it. It doesn’t seem like you do either.

  51. Sashka, correct, I don’t know how to think about it. But I do not believe that these events should consequently be outside the discourse. After all, these events may carry much of the impact of anthropogenic forcing.
     
    There is indeed no unbiased picture of the history of tornadic outbreaks prior to the satellite era. There is no useful statistical model of the process. The more atypical the event class of interest, the longer the record needs to be to attempt such a model. For the purposes of severe large-spatial-scale events, we can not hope to produce the model for a particular event class.
     
    What we do intuitively is lump these events together across event classes: droughts in Australia, tornadic outbreaks in Alabama, fires in Russia, sudden sea ice retreat in the Arctic, floods in Pakistan, all without obvious precedent in a few years. Is it possible to formalize this? It seems difficult, because it is hard to predict what sort of large scale unpredictable event will happen next. Those of us whose intuitions say this all forms a pattern, are we just applying our own biases? Or are those of us who say it does not overcompensating?
     
    At what point does it actually become fair to say “this is too weird”, i.e., well outside natural variation of occurrence of disaster.
     
    I don’t have an answer. All I am saying so far is that it is unfair to dismiss the question.
     

  52. Sashka says:

    In my opinion, things that we cannot model or conceptualize do not belong in the discourse. If someone like you has an intuition that some events are not independent (and, in fact, stipulated by GW) then, by all means, build a theory and try to predict something. I’m not dismissing the question. I’m just saying that we need an answer, too.

    Remember Hansen’s bet? For some reason, nobody’s trying to repeat it these days …

  53. Matt says:

     

    Sashka,
    I’m not sure if this is exactly what Michael is getting at, but his post seems to describe a closely analogous concept/model from ecology and systems science: that perturbed systems undergo increasing extreme oscillations before reconfiguring into a new state (aka ‘squeal’).
    This certainly has an empirical basis in ecosystem research, but whether it applies to other complex systems (including climate)… this is still quite speculative, I think. Interesting though, and I think valid to raise in this context.
    See Stephen Carpenter’s work, particularly 2009 Nature article which discusses climate””
    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v461/n7260/full/nature08227.html
    and summarised here:
    http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1920168,00.html
    and a more recent paper in Science looking at lake ecosystems:
    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2011/04/27/science.1203672.abstract
    BBC summary here:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-13229211
    In other words this isn’t completely idle speculation. There are some grounds for concern… if nothing approaching definitive.

     

  54. Sashka says:

    From college, I vaguely remember that eco dynamics are described Volterra integral equations. In their original form they are much simpler than climate system and even allow closed form solutions. I have no idea how far you can stretch this analogy.

  55. Menth says:

    Michael Tobis “All I am saying so far is that it is unfair to dismiss the question.”
    Fair.
    Peter Gleick: “Violent tornadoes throughout the southeastern U.S. must be a front-page reminder that no matter how successful climate deniers are in confusing the public or delaying action on climate change in Congress or globally, the science is clear: Our climate is worsening”
    Not fair.

  56. Matt, the ideas of overshoot and ringing are part of the undergraduate curriculum in electrical engineering, and can appear in systems as simple as second order scalar linear differential systems. In a system as complex as climate it is reasonable to anticipate such underdamped dynamics appears in many places, and indeed a clear example is provided by the El Nino/La Nina resonance.
     
    But there are others, which those pleased to disregard the actual science revere as “Oscillations” but which are easily understood to the engineering wordview as resonances. On multiannual to decadal scales, the upper ocean runs the show.
     
    On still longer time scales, the ice and the deep ocean see the upper ocean and the atmosphere as their communication line, but the nature of their mutual accommodation remains really quite deeply mysterious and somehow contrives to move a great deal of carbon around. The best know example of this sort of thing is the Younger Dryas event, which is an example of what I was taught to call a “monostable multivibrator”, quite a silly name, better called a “half-oscillator”.
     
    But our lives and those of our children will be dominated by changes in the upper ocean, and resulting atmospheric responses. While better known and understood than those of the deep ocean and the ice, there is a lot of uncertainty in the science at the level of detail. This may mean that, rather than making a smooth transition to a hotter word in every particular places, some places may encounter various swings and unexpected hits, and even cool spells. My expectation is that this will not settle down for hundreds of years after we stop adding to the problem, but that adding to the problem adds to the wildness of the swings.
     
    And though I can’t prove it, at least as yet, I suspect we are already seeing wild enough swings to support this idea.
     
    There was a tornado in Auckland NZ last week! Is that a normal sort of abnormality in New Zealand?
     

  57. Menth, Peter operates at the interface of science and politics, and is very very good at it, and I greatly admire him. I operate at the interface of science and journalism.
     
    His purpose is, within the limits of honesty, to have as benign an effect as possible. My purpose is, within the limits of other ethical constraints, to be as honest as possible.
     
    Nothing Peter said is indefensible. However, there is some reading between the lines needed to make a line of argument out of it. Nevertheless, people who understand the situation have no trouble seeing that line of argument.
     
    The same can be said of An Inconvenient Truth. Aside from a single inconvenient marginal untruth (“all these islanders have been moving away”  in any but the most informal sense of “all these”, i.e., a few identifiable individuals, which may have been true in its missing context) everything Gore said was true. It only seemed like an argument though. It was really a bunch of claims, any one of which can be backed up, but none of which were, and with caveats carefully but consistently backgrounded. This was the correct thing for Mr. Gore to do, in his role in changing the way most people thi…. er, feel about the situation.
     
    My job is to try to fill in the blanks for the people willing to dig deeper, but not ready to commit to six or eight years in pursuit of a frankly not very appealing career path.
     
    So what I say and what Peter says are different in purpose and style. But for him to say that this event should remind us of the huge risk we are taking is not something I’m about to take issue with.
     

  58. Brandon Shollenberger says:

    I find the discussion of tornadoes rather strange.  Michael Tobis talks about how exceptional the recent tornadoes were, but really, how exceptional were they?  On April 27th, the NOAA estimates there were 190 tornadoes (this number is likely to drop as months go by), and they have confirmed 134.  Compare this to 37 years ago, again in April, where there were 148 confirmed tornadoes in a single day.  For a single day, the difference in numbers isn’t that significant (especially since things have changed in 40 years).
     
    Of course, the recent tornado activity stretched over several days, something the 1974 outbreak didn’t do.  On the other hand, 20% of the 1974 outbreak’s confirmed tornadoes were F4 or F5.  Only 5% of the more recent outbreak’s were that severe.  Only 35% of the 1974 tornadoes were F0 or F1.  That number is almost doubled for the recent tornadoes.
     
    Maybe the recent tornadoes were exceptional in some regards.  So what?  There are plenty of exceptional weather events all the time.  Should we jump on each new one as a new topic for doomsday scenarios?  Of course not.  Outliers are expected.  Unless someone can point to a trend in outliers, it means nothing to point to them.

  59. kdk33 says:

    I think MT is on the hunt for the AGW holy grail:  the theory by which CO2 is responsible for bad weather, of any type, in a way that is both dangerous and unmeasurable.

  60. Sashka says:

    Michael,

    For resonance, you need to frequencies to become equal, e.g. eigenfrequency of the system on that of the forcing. How is El Nino/La Nina a resonance? The theory based on equatorial Kelvin waves works reasonably well.

  61. Sashka, an equatorial Kelvin wave is in fact an eigenmode of the equatorial waveguide. So is an equatorial Rossby wave. The asymmetry of the respective group velocities is a little weird, but the resonance frequency is the inverse of the time required for for energy to traverse the basin.
     
    (There is a comparable mode in the Atlantic basin, of course, but it’s less important in practice.)
     
    The energy to excite this sloshing does indeed seem to come from a projection of trade wind variability onto the relevant time scales. Philander has a book which works this out in detail.
     

  62. Brandon Shollenburg is asking exactly the question I am asking.
     
    “Maybe the recent tornadoes were exceptional in some regards.  So what?  There are plenty of exceptional weather events all the time.  Should we jump on each new one as a new topic for doomsday scenarios?  Of course not.  Outliers are expected.  Unless someone can point to a trend in outliers, it means nothing to point to them.”

    Precisely. But how on earth can we establish whether there is a trend in outliers? By definition, these are rare and their statistics are messy.

    Our informal perception is notoriously biased and unreliable, but it isn’t always wrong, and there are plenty of sound reasons to expect an increase in extreme events. So, given that statistics of rare events fail us and intuition fails us and yet we have some well-reasoned expectations, what are we to do?

    I think there needs to be some sort of meta-outlier statistic. But the tendency to construct one post-hoc is also a confounding issue.

    So, have the really bad consequences of climate change already started? I think so, but I cannot prove it yet. Those who hold that this position is incoherent are not thinking clearly. Absence of proof is not proof of absence.

    Perhaps a more subtle statistical test can be constructed. Or perhaps we’ll have to wait until matters get worse. It stands to reason that (barring an unexpected rallying of the forces of reason) we will be enduring the most severe consequences of climate change before we are sure that this is what we are seeing. The only sensible question is whether that is happening now. It may well be that 1) the answer to that will not be statistically reliable for some time and 2) that answer is in the affirmative. I’m not saying that’s the case. I’m saying that’s looking plausible at this point.

  63. Sashka says:

    @ 62

    Maybe you are right but resonance is not a very intuitive description to me. I’d guess that trade winds have a whole spectrum of variability. It would be kind of strange (but not impossible) if it had a strong spectral peak at the right frequency.

    @ 63

    There is a possibility 3) that the answer is negative.
     

  64. “There is a possibility 3) that the answer is negative.”

    Yes.

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