Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, January 6, 2020

The weather report

Anyone who paid attention in ninth grade Earth Science class knows that climate and weather are not the same thing.

This, of course, means that we should be scrutinizing the high school transcripts of Donald Trump and the majority of his administration, because without fail you can count on a sneering comment about there being no such thing as anthropogenic climate change every time it snows in Buffalo.

The difference isn't even that hard to understand.  Climate is what you expect to get, weather is what you actually get.  Put more scientifically, climate is the overall averages and trends in a geographical region, and weather is the conditions that occur in a place at a particular time.  So a hot day no more proves the reality of climate change than a cold day disproves it; it's the changes of the average conditions over time that demonstrate to anyone with an IQ larger than their shoe size that something is going drastically wrong with the global climate, and that our penchant for burning fossil fuels is largely the cause.

Well, we might have to amend that last paragraph.  Because a paper that came out last week in Nature has shown pretty conclusively that you can detect the fingerprint of climate change in the weather -- if you look at a large enough sampling on a particular day.

In "Climate Change Now Detectable from Any Single Day of Weather at Global Scale," climatologists Sebastian Sippel, Nicolai Meinshausen, Erich M. Fischer, Enikő Székely, and Reto Knutti, of the Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science of ETH Zürich decided to look at the assumptions implicit in Donald Trump's incessant tweeting every time there's a hard frost that climate change doesn't exist, and see if it really is possible to see the effects of climate change on a small scale.

And terrifyingly, it turns out that it is.

The authors write:
For generations, climate scientists have educated the public that ‘weather is not climate’, and climate change has been framed as the change in the distribution of weather that slowly emerges from large variability over decades.  However, weather when considered globally is now in uncharted territory.  Here we show that on the basis of a single day of globally observed temperature and moisture, we detect the fingerprint of externally driven climate change, and conclude that Earth as a whole is warming.  Our detection approach invokes statistical learning and climate model simulations to encapsulate the relationship between spatial patterns of daily temperature and humidity, and key climate change metrics such as annual global mean temperature or Earth’s energy imbalance.  Observations are projected onto this relationship to detect climate change.  The fingerprint of climate change is detected from any single day in the observed global record since early 2012, and since 1999 on the basis of a year of data.  Detection is robust even when ignoring the long-term global warming trend.  This complements traditional climate change detection, but also opens broader perspectives for the communication of regional weather events, modifying the climate change narrative: while changes in weather locally are emerging over decades, global climate change is now detected instantaneously.
So Trump's method of "look out of the window and check what the weather's like today" turns out to prove exactly the opposite of what he'd like everyone to believe.

I am simultaneously appalled and fascinated by the fact that there are still people who doubt anthropogenic climate change.  To start with, there is a universal consensus amongst the climatologists (i.e., the people who know what the hell they're talking about) that man-made global warming is a reality.  Note, by the way, that the scientists have always erred on the cautious side; back when I started my teaching career in the 1980s, the truthful stance was that there was suspicion that anthropogenic climate change was happening, but very few scientists were willing to state it with certainty.

Now?  There's hardly a dissenting voice, with the exception of the "scientists" at the Heartland Institute, who coincidentally get their paychecks from the petroleum industry.

Hmm, I wonder why they're still arguing against it?  Funny thing, that.

But even more persuasive than the scientists -- after all, we're not known as a species for trusting the experts when the experts are saying something inconvenient -- there's the evidence of our own eyes.  In my own home of upstate New York, stop by our local coffee shop any morning you like and ask one of the old-timers if winters now are as bad as what they remember as a child.  One and all, they'll tell you about snowstorms and blizzards and so on, the last serious one of which happened back in 1993.  Yeah, we've had snowfalls since then -- this is the Northeast, after all -- but if you look back through the meteorological records from the early to mid 20th century, there is no question that we've trended toward milder winters.

Then there are the summertime droughts and heat waves, the most extreme of which is happening right now in Australia.  Large parts of Australia are currently burning to a crisp in the worst and most widespread series of wildfires in human history.  Whole towns are being evacuated, and in some places the only safety people have found is piling their family members, pets, and belongings onto boats and waiting out the fires offshore.  The latest estimates are that 12.3 million acres have been charred in the last few months, and that half a billion wild animals have died.  Given the threatened status of a great many of Australia's endemic species, the fact is that we might be witnessing in a few months the simultaneous extinction of dozens of endangered plants and animals.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

But Trump and his administration, and their media mouthpieces at Fox News, have continued to feed people the lie that everything's okay, that we can continue polluting and burning gasoline and coal without any repercussions whatsoever.  Deregulate everything has become the battle cry.  Industry, they say, will regulate itself, no need to worry.

Because that worked out so well in the 1950s and 1960s, when the air in big cities was barely breathable, and there was so much industrial waste in the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio that it caught fire not once but thirteen times.

The scientists, and concerned laypeople like myself, have been screaming "Will you people please wake up and do something!" for years now, to seemingly little effect.  "Everything's fine" is a comforting lie, especially since rejecting it means putting a crimp in our generally lavish lifestyles.

The problem is, the natural world has a nasty way of having the last word.  We often forget that there is no reason whatsoever that we couldn't completely wipe ourselves out, either through accident or neglect or outright willful fuckery, or some combination thereof.  For my kids' sake I hope we as a species get pulled up short in the very near future and come together to work toward a solution, because my sense is that time is short.  There comes a point when an avalanche has started and no power on Earth can stop it.  I just hope we're not there yet.

But such a point definitely exists, whether it's behind us or ahead of us.  And that by itself should scare the absolute shit out of every citizen of this Earth.

Maybe you still find yourself shrugging and saying, "Meh."  If so, you should shut off Fox News (permanently) and read a scientific paper or two.  Start with the Sippel et al. study I linked above.

If that doesn't convince you, I don't know what would.


This week's Skeptophilia book of the week is simultaneously one of the most dismal books I've ever read, and one of the funniest; Tom Phillips's wonderful Humans: A Brief History of How We Fucked It All Up.

I picked up a copy of it at the wonderful book store The Strand when I was in Manhattan last week, and finished it in three days flat (and I'm not a fast reader).  To illustrate why, here's a quick passage that'll give you a flavor of it:
Humans see patterns in the world, we can communicate this to other humans and we have the capacity to imagine futures that don't yet exist: how if we just changed this thing, then that thing would happen, and the world would be a slightly better place. 
The only trouble is... well, we're not terribly good at any of those things.  Any honest assessment of humanity's previous performance on those fronts reads like a particularly brutal annual review from a boss who hates you.  We imagine patterns where they don't exist.  Our communication skills are, uh, sometimes lacking.  And we have an extraordinarily poor track record of failing to realize that changing this thing will also lead to the other thing, and that even worse thing, and oh God no now this thing is happening how do we stop it.
Phillips's clear-eyed look at our own unfortunate history is kept from sinking under its own weight by a sparkling wit, calling our foibles into humorous focus but simultaneously sounding the call that "Okay, guys, it's time to pay attention."  Stupidity, they say, consists of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results; Phillips's wonderful book points out how crucial that realization is -- and how we need to get up off our asses and, for god's sake, do something.

And you -- and everyone else -- should start by reading this book.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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