In Morning Report yesterday there was a clear question and statement on the difference between weather events and climate. This is a question that always seems to confuse our CCD’s (climate change deniers and skeptics). So it is worth examining it a bit in the view of some of the unusual weather that has been happening recently. A increased frequency of such events is going to be the main effect of climate change over time, eventually leading to famine.
I’ve clipped the interview out below from the news highlights.
[audio:/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/Morning_Report_2010_08_12_Interview_James_Remmick.mp3] mp3 is here
Sean Plunkett was interviewing James Renwick from NIWA about the weird weather going on around the globe at present. James Renwick pointed to a unusual but not abnormal diversion in the east-west northern hemisphere jetstreams. It has had a bit of a meander or stall. So normal weather patterns are currently being screwed up over large areas of Eurasia.
It is not unusual to have these types of eddies in the jetstream happening in various locations around the globe. However the current effect is happening in what is historically an unusual location. The consequences have been a quite startling shift in local weather patterns across large areas in Eurasia. The results include massive rainfalls from China to Pakistan causing flooding. In the meanwhile Russia is cooking in an unprecedented heatwave with the associated outbreaks of fire over thousands of kilometers.
The telling point comes when Sean asks :-
I know given the times we live in, a lot of people will be sitting there saying climate change. Greenhouse gases? Can we draw a linkage or not.
James Renwick replies with the exactitude :-
I’d say no and yes. No you can’t draw a linkage between any one event and climate change. Because that’s a very long term fairly gradual change. But, what all the climate models are saying is that the likelihood, the risks of these types of events. Both the heavy rainfalls and the high temperature extremes and fires. The risk of those are set to increase through time.
Now that is a precise answer based on a probabilistic model. James Renwick is comparing two different time scales in a set of probabilities. A small timescale gives a particular event, but over a longer timescale we look at the probability of that ever occurring. This might be a probability expressed as a particular type of event happening once every particular number of years.
The atmosphere is a semi-chaotic system with multitudinous factors acting on it; including solar inputs, the rotation of the globe, the inertia of air, ocean and land temperatures, and the positioning of geomorphological features. Because of the number of factors we can barely predict the effects using the best and fastest computers around on probabilities of historical and paleoclimatic events. Trying to get a deterministic solution is literally impossible at our current levels of computing grunt.
However what is clear from the modeling of what we know about the climate is that the physics of overall global warming and the consequent climate change increase the probability of a particular type of an event happening more frequently. With more heat in the system everything speeds up, much the same as it does with virtually every other physical process. So instead of an event happening on average every two hundred years, it could now be more likely to happen every 100 years. As the atmospheric system retains more energy then it becomes more likely to happen at least once every 50 years, and so on.
Of course, the events in China, Pakistan, and Russia have happened before. So have all of the other unusual weather events. Heavy hail on fruit and vineyards. Freak snowstorms during lambing seasons. Heavy rain flattening crops and hay just prior to harvest. Tornados and hurricanes. Floods and droughts. etc.
The problem for humans is that our systems of farming practices (and for that matter disaster relief) are designed around a particular types of event only happening on the frequencies that we have dealt with historically. Our disaster handling and farming practices copes with them and the consequent deaths, food shortages, business failures, and the like. Sometimes those costs are pretty high. Even in the moderate climate of NZ we can see the effects of unusual weather events. For instance the widespread farm droughts we had a few years ago and the substantial impacts it had on our economy.
But what happens when those unusual events happen with a much higher and every increasing frequency. How long will the systems humans have developed to cope with unusual weather events continue to work?
All of our systems have evolved in the relative climate stability of the last 10,000 years as human civilization developed. Our farming practices are built around the relatively predicable weather events during this era with the infrequent unusual weather. However we’re now modifying the atmosphere to an extent that hasn’t been seen for at least 200,000 years. That puts the climate events back to when the weather was far more unstable than the benign weather of human history. We’re also modifying it at a speed that has never been shown to happen in any period of paleoclimates.
Can we cope with unusual weather events happening every few years as their frequency increases? Well it depends who you talk to.
The CCD’s deny that it is happening at all in the face of all of the evidence to the contrary – after all they seem to be armed with the enduring faith of stupidity. The stupid are always with us actively trying for the rapture, unfortunately also trying to drag us with them to the brink of idiocy.
The skeptics largely seem to be saying that it won’t make that much difference. Either the effects are unlikely to be as extreme as predicted or humans will develop technological fixes to alleviate the risks. They seem to have a inability to understand the nature of long-term probabilities and risk. From my training in earth sciences it is pretty apparent that they haven’t looked at how different the climates in the past have been and how often early humans were driven to the brink of extinction by them.
For some reason the calmness of the current climate over the last 10,000 years is accepted by ‘skeptics’ as being the norm, rather than the odd abnormality which is the way that almost all of the earth scientists view it. Similarly speaking from a technical viewpoint as a developer, it is hard to see where their confidence in technical fixes comes from. Development is always risky and very fraught with unexpected roadblocks. There are few certainties in what outcomes you will get from any development process. It isn’t something that I’d like to bet my families life on. Quite simply climate ‘skeptics’ are born again optimists. They are just the “useful idiots” for affected industries to prevent changes that threaten their current business, and are just as stupid as the deniers.
My view, based on the science and observations of the political processes, is that we will not be able to cope effectively with the changes that will come. Climate change is a slow process with immense inertia through time. It appears to be the type of long-term risk that our politicians are incapable of dealing with. A good example is the gutless responses of John Key. His government transformed an inadequate ETS package by Labour into incentives for industries to increase their pollution, while taxing individuals with limited abilities to change their behavior. It masked all of the price signals to prevent effective changes in behavior by the major polluters.
I see climate change riding the four horsemen on the rusting bodies of dead SUV’s into a bleak and fraught future. All our responses to climate change will be far too little and far too late. Effective actions will probably only happen when shifts in weather patterns cause worldwide famines. At which point it will be too late to stop the next few hundred years of weather chaos.