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The dire probabilities of unusual weather

Written By: - Date published: 1:45 pm, August 13th, 2010 - 30 comments
Categories: climate change, ETS, history, national, science - Tags:

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.

Updated: There is a lot more reading (including even more links) at Hot Topic.

30 comments on “The dire probabilities of unusual weather”

  1. john 1

    James Lovelock has explained that Earth has two stable states : 1.The Ice age state during which man evolved in the warmer areas nearer the equator. The current Interglacial is an interregnum before the next cold period.(Gaia has pulled down the temps by burying all that carbon out of the atmosphere, she has done this to enable life((Paradoxically life,especially in the Oceans is richer in the cold regime!)) )
    2. The hot state which man has never experienced on this Planet as a general condition though we adapt well to local hot climates. Lovelock says because we have dug up all that carbon Gaia so carefully removed,burned it and put CO2 back into the atmosphere we have now propelled the Earth’s climate to the hot state. The hot state has much higher sea levels and temps. We have forced the system so rapidly with the fossil fuel burning that change is happening far,far more rapidly than under natural changes bar cataclysms. During the transition to the hot state weather will become more and more unstable until a new balance is found. Also, the process is being accelerated by positive feed backs pumping more carbon into the atmosphere.
    Good news NZ in its cooling oceanic position will be one of the best places to be.

  2. ZB 2

    We’ve been forcing the climate since our ancesters started cutting down trees and burning them,
    once the temperate world was covered by forests. By pushing carbon into the atmosphere
    faster than usual, and then digging the stuff up and burning it, was it any wonder that
    the climate maintained a much more psuedo stability. e.g. too walk you first force yourself
    into an inbalance, then from the unbalanced gait you are ‘locked into’ a smooth accelerating
    fall that your leg then slams to a halt. The equilibrium of the climate was ‘forced’ into
    a instability and so created a smoother climate. Now we either accelerate the climate
    even further – fall flat on our face, or we slam on the leg and stop the climate with
    all the shock waves and ramifications for instability – necessary rebalancing. This
    mentality that its good either way is dumb, we have already set up a system we now
    have to take responsibility for, we can either place the adjustments we need to
    rebalance the climate as is needed, or we can trust ourselves to the natural fall onto our
    climate faces. The skeptics argue ignorance, that we have no responsibilities, that
    we never did anything wrong, are not engaged with the climate. The governments
    need to slam on the breaks before we get too far from the nice equilibrium and
    go further and start balancing the instability humans have started. There is no
    going back, as so many environmental schemes seem to believe, that we can
    take a species off the endangered list when their habitate has gone for ever.
    Habitates change, species go extinct, climates are forced by species in plagues
    all the time, locusts force a lot of species to go extinct when they become epidemic.
    So its the same for humans. Its about how we recover from the recklessness of
    the past. Whether it be markets or climate. It starts with a honest appraisal.
    Speculators force people into poverty. Polluters force climate into collapse.
    Grow up already. The idea that our race will be lead over the brink by a few
    shock jock far right nut radio hosts is just astonishing.

  3. Bunji 3

    Today’s Tom Scott cartoon is one for you Lynn. Very good.

    • NickS 3.1

      That, is bloody brilliant, and will probably spark a swarm of utterly hilariously stupid letters to the editor.

    • lprent 3.2

      Thanks Bunji – that made my day. I can just imagine DPF (for instance) is his role of ‘skeptic’ taking that approach.

  4. Grapethroat 4

    Lprent: I think you need to appreciate there is a spectrum of beliefs both on the skeptics and non-skeptics side.

    Some believe CO2 has no bearing on climate change – call them deniers.
    Some believe the climate isn’t changing – call them deniers.
    Then there are those that understand the science and primarily take issue with two things: the quality of the data used (e.g. the surface stations, the proxies) and the reliability/accuracy of the predicted outcomes (e.g. how valid is a prediction of 6 deg C warming by 2100 when currently the observed temps are at the very bottom of the GCM’s error bars, indicating it is more likely to be no more than 1.5 deg C by 2100).
    I call them (and I’m one) skeptics.

    Should I call you un-skeptical?

    Frankly I don’t care what you call me, as long as you don’t care if I don’t listen to you.

    However, in the spirit of the precautionary principle, lets put me in the ‘warmist’ camp and say I believe it’s critical that we cut GHG emissions hugely.
    This is my “let’s cut the crap” approach, and if we want to get practical solutions in place fast then prolonging a debate over whether CAGW is real or not doesn’t seem too constructive.

    So far the best proposal I have seen is that endorsed by James Hansen – the fee and dividend approach where carbon permits are auctioned off (no freebies to big emitters) and all the revenue is returned equally per-capita to citizens. Those who consume lower-than-average amounts of fossil fuels come out ahead, receiving more in dividends than they pay in higher prices. Those who consume more-than-average amounts pay more.

    Of course I may have misread you on this, you may actually get more satisfaction from continuing the argument.

    • lprent 4.1

      As far as I’m concerned anyone who says “…I believe it’s critical that we cut GHG emissions hugely” and points toward an immediate action (that might actually work) isn’t a skeptic.

      I should have probably pointed out that I’m a skeptic about the detail on the data (all scientists are skeptics by nature and training). But not the overall effect of the data trends. The problem is that most of the ‘skeptics’ I see around here are arguing mostly that nothing needs to be done. They aren’t skeptics – they’re fools deluding themselves

      It is simply idiotic, especially since the buffering of ‘missing’ CO2 will re-emerge from its ocean holes to accentuate the process later.

      Incidentally if you’re talking about recent data, then I’d suggest you look closely at the GISS data over the last decade. Then remember we have been at the low point in the solar emission cycles and the scale of every chart I’ve seen for the models has been in the order of 5-10 years rather than yearly or monthly. It is a probability projection rather than a prediction.

      • Grapethroat 4.1.1

        Ok, let’s agree the common ground. Shouldn’t the thrust of the debate switch to the best solution?
        Personally I think many of those currently labelled skeptic (even some labelled denier) would welcome a more practical solution.
        Of those I talk to the vast majority agree with the goal of shifting away from fossil fuels, but not with ETS and cap and trade style schemes. The fee and dividend scheme seems palatable to most of them though.

        • lprent

          Personally I’d just favor a simple excise tax when the carbon comes out of the ground and/or when it passes a border. That is simple to administer, gives a clearcut price signal to the markets, and can be easily increased over time. If any country doesn’t claim enough excise then permit compensating across the board tariffs on their exports under GATT.

          So far none of the cap’n’trade, or any of the ‘market’ solutions for putting a price on fossil carbon look to be working. All they do is delay the inevitable because people spend all of their time pissing about looking at the details of the schemes.

          Now tell me why excise taxes are any harder to implement than any other scheme, and why they wouldn’t do the job.

          • Grapethroat

            A question on this system – how does it affect the end user? Wouldn’t they just get saddled with higher prices with no guarantee the taxes collected benefit a low carbon consumer in any way?
            That’s why I have a personal preference for the fee and dividend system – it can effectively reward a low carbon consumer.

            • lprent

              The basic problem with fossil carbon at present is that it is simply too cheap because it is a ‘found’ resource.

              Putting a tax on all fossil carbon will raise the price to all consumers (both end and intermediate) in the supply chain – thereby giving a clear signal to all about what products are using high levels of fossil carbon regardless what form it finally takes. Money collected from an excise can be plowed into anything. However there will be a pretty high incentive for governments to put it into R&D for fossil carbon alternatives.

              However the price signal from the raw material is the important part of the idea. If you raise costs on a material then there is a pretty rapid response in a market economy to find alternatives that cost less and how to use less. At present the price of oil is still too low.

              Incidentally regardless which scheme you choose, ultimately the end-consumers get saddled with higher prices until viable alternatives are found. The trick is to make it so that the intermediate manufacturers have an incentive to change earlier rather than later. Having to raise their prices and getting the consequent fall in demand is a excellent way to do that. Doing what the idiotic NACT ETS did and putting the entire cost as a tax to end-consumers in the short-medium term simply doesn’t do that.

  5. Bored 5

    Skeptics and CCDs are the types of people who would not bother to buy insurance on the basis that it is highly unlikely that their house might burn down. They will also be the first to complain when it does and demand that soembody else picks up the bill. The really annoying thing about these fools is that they are willing to risk everybody else on their beliefs rather than assess a possible risk and take their share of the collective responsibility for risk mitigation (aka insurance).

  6. vto 6

    If really bad climate changing scenarios eventuate then it is likely that pockets of humankind will be ok and big pockets that will not be ok. It’s possible NZ will be ok – but really, how would we know that? If sea levels rise to such an extent then weather systems will be going lordy knows how craxy compared to now … NZ could be blown away by gale force winds in the centre of the water hemisphere.. or sit calm in a new doldrums (though we will be used to that). So it’s a bit of a balmy gamble to rely on the Coro becoming a barmy version of its current self.

    And what if NZ is ok? Picture mass demographic upheaval in several locations around the globe. Will they come here if it is survivable? How will they get here? By junk? or yacht? or jetplane? or cruiseliner? We must realise of course we stand no show of resisting such a tide… Though a significantly increased naval and air force would be wise…

    Which leads to the next question …. where is a good place to hide from these invaders? You need somewhere geographically difficult to access and habitate. Somewhere food is available wild or easily grown. And preferably your own defence force. Or maybe we embrace the newbies in a genuinely PC and loving fashion? We’d be good at that….. I’d be keen to stay alive for another 150 years to see the whole kaboodle that’s for sure.

    • Grapethroat 6.1

      All these questions (and more) are answered in Costner’s ‘Waterworld’ – but I still can’t recommend it.

      • RedLogix 6.1.1

        Was I the only person who actually liked that film?

      • NickS 6.1.2

        Except of course there’s no where near enough water stored in the ice caps for that much flooding to occur.

        You’d actually need to throw some dirty cosmic snowballs (aka comets) at the Earth (and blow them up in orbit to prevent the usual issues) to raise the ocean level that much.

    • Pascal's bookie 6.2

      Starter for ten:

      Who thinks that one, more, or all, of the main religions

      will reform in a fundamentalist direction,

      blaming the calamity on, variously:

      i) the filthy heathen external ‘other’

      ii) the faithless lukewarm internal apostates

      iii) the godless secular liberals who fell for the deceptively alluring lies of the deceiver and turned their backs on Teh big kahuna who is now righteously shouting, ‘comeuppance”

      The peoples that get hammered by this are going to want revenge. The peoples responsible are going to want to blame anyone else, and we have a long history, as viciously tribal little monkeys, of justifying blame/revenge shit through the use of myths and shibboleths.

      I would love to be wrong about this.

    • Draco T Bastard 6.3

      We must realise of course we stand no show of resisting such a tide Though a significantly increased naval and air force would be wise

      Actually, I think we would – if we built up our defences although I think more in the terms of long range missiles (1000+ km) and satellite reconnaissance than navies and air-force. Missiles have the advantage of being harder to hit than full size ships and planes as well as being a shit load cheaper. There’s only one way to stop an invasion fleet – sink it.

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