Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Why of Climate

I've never quite been able to wrap my head around what the deal is with particularly vociferous climate change skeptics, and why they think the way they do. Note that I'm not talking about the average person here, who most likely has only encountered very limited information and has drawn their conclusions based on their own observations and what they get from the media. The folks I'm thinking of here are more those who are, to put it bluntly, wild-eyed about it, ranging from furious notes in newspaper comment threads to sending death threats to climate scientists.

The idea that it's just about the money doesn't ring true to me. Sure, some opposition I've encountered is predicated on the notion that climate change was made up by scientists so that they could get more grant money - yes, I actually did encounter someone claiming that - or that it's just another tax grab. Personally, I'm curious as to how or whether these arguments will change once we start getting ice-free summers in the Arctic, but I don't think it's really explanatory of what's going on here. A lot of the talk seems to be particularly emotionally charged.

Whatever's going on, it's something I'd like to be able to understand, so that I can take it into account in my own thinking. Besides, if you have any hope at all of getting an argument of yours through to someone else, you need to know where they're coming from. What may be a slam-dunk argument for you could just be a rubber ball bouncing off a concrete wall when used on someone else. So it's something that I do think about, off and on - the question of the manner in which some people reach the conclusion that climate change is bunk.

My latest theory - for some people, at least, it may be based on a mix of weather and humility.

A snow-covered tree in downtown New Westminster - January 15, 2012.

I'd intended to be in Seattle right now, attending a convention and exploring the Emerald City during the rainiest time of the year. Instead, earlier this week four inches of snow fell on the city, and while that's essentially nothing for eastern cities that know well the cold touch of winter, here in the Pacific Northwest winter means rain and lots of it. Those four inches of snow represented a substantial chunk of Seattle's total yearly snowfall average, and it played merry hell with transportation around the city. In particular, Wednesday's afternoon Vancouver-Seattle run of the Amtrak Cascades was cancelled because of weather issues, leaving me high and dry in the Lower Mainland, and it wasn't until today that normal Cascades service started to resume along the length of the route.

It's not a shock that this happened, though, when you know why - the jet stream, a powerful air current that's one of the prime governors of Canadian weather, bent to the south and allowed a sustained blast of cold Arctic air to rush in over the Pacific Northwest, transforming the usual rain into freezing rain and snow. The jet stream was likewise the proximate cause of the unseasonably mild and dry December experienced across North America, because it stayed far to the north and kept the arctic air bottled up tight - this is why cities in Alaska have seen more than four meters of snow pile up so far this winter.

Seeing things such as this, then - weather patterns at the mercy of air currents, cities paralyzed by forces of nature - is it any wonder that some people have trouble accepting the notion that humanity is a prime influencer of the climate? Look at the English language, for example - "force of nature" is just another way of saying "something that cannot be stopped." We're accustomed to thinking of nature as something above us, beyond us, that we're powerless to control.

That may be so, but the failing here is just because we can't control something, that doesn't mean we're unable to influence it. One of the prime notions of climate change is that by adding heat, and thus energy, to the system of nature, we are potentially influencing it in a negative manner. Nature will still barrel on, wholly heedless of us, but the danger is that it will barrel on in a new direction, one in which we're not used to dealing with. That's what the big uncertainty is here - we have no idea precisely what dumping all this energy into the system will do. We've unintentionally begun a grand climate experiment with Earth as the laboratory... but it's not a scientifically rigorous experiment, unfortunately.

There's no control group, you see.

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