The Trick Climate Question

By Keith Kloor | November 2, 2011 10:28 am

Michael Lemonick, a veteran science journalist, has an intriguing op-ed in today’s LA Times. He argues that the severe weather/climate change attribution debate is too simplistic and unhelpfully framed around the wrong question. Here’s a better way to think about this issue, he suggests:

An obese, middle-aged man is running to catch a bus. Suddenly, he clutches his chest, falls to the ground and dies of a massive heart attack. It turns out that he’s a smoker and a diabetic, has high blood pressure, eats a diet high in saturated fat and low in leafy green vegetables, pours salt on everything, drinks too much beer, avoids exercise at all costs and has a father, grandfather and two uncles who also died young of heart attacks.

So what killed him? Most people are savvy enough about health risks to know this is a trick question. You can’t pick out a single cause. His choices and his genes all contributed to the heart attack “” but you can say with confidence that the more risk factors that pile up, the more likely it is to end badly.

Somehow, though, people think that it makes sense to ask whether a given extreme weather event “” a devastating heat wave or a punishing drought or a deadly torrential rainstorm “” is caused by climate change.

That’s a trick question too. Scientists know that the increasing load of greenhouse gases we’re pumping into the atmosphere doesn’t “cause” extreme weather. But it does raise the odds, just as a diet of triple bacon cheeseburgers raises the odds of heart disease.

This sounds reasonable to me. The problem I have with the severe weather/climate debate is that all those other contributing factors Lemonick mentions largely get ignored, so that the global warming angle can remain paramount. For example, when we hear about the imminent “dust-bowl-ification” of the American Southwest or Australia, the discussion does not include the obvious risk of city-building in arid, marginal landscapes, and the kinds of policies in place that put populations there increasingly vulnerable to wildfires, extended droughts, etc.

This is why I think global warming needs to be folded into a larger debate about sustainability. Because if we don’t change our patterns of land use and development, reducing greenhouses gases isn’t going to be enough to save cities like Los Angeles, Miami, or Phoenix.

UPDATE: In the comments, Roger Pielke Jr. mentions something he wrote with Daniel Sarewitz in The New Republic in the early 2000s:

Prescribing emissions reductions to forestall the future effects of disasters is like telling someone who is sedentary, obese, and alcoholic that the best way to improve his health is to wear a seat belt.

UPDATE: Some context from Andy Revkin.

Medical climate metaphors, newnewish and much older.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate change, sustainability
  • Sashka

    Reasonable is not the same as correct. It is physically reasonable to think that GW raises the odds of extreme weather but we don’t know for a fact that it does. Also, just knowing that it does raise the odds is meaningless unless we know by how much.

    Other than that I completely agree with you, Keith, that in terms of sustainability GW is not very important.

  • Keith Kloor

    Sashka,

    You write: “Also, just knowing that it does raise the odds is meaningless unless we know by how much.”

    I won’t speak for Mike Lemonick, but I’m guessing he’d say that’s not the point he’s making. After all, we don’t know how much fatty foods might contribute to a heart attack, but we don’t dismiss the risk. (Well, many of us do, but that’s a whole other debate)

    I would ask you, why the need to quantify such a risk? 

    Lastly, let me be clear: I think the risks of global warming deserve a place in this debate. I just think the attention given it (and the way its discussed) puts all the other important contributing factors to vulnerable populations into the background.

  • Matt B

    Hello Keith,

    You say;  After all, we don’t know how much fatty foods might contribute to a heart attack, but we don’t dismiss the risk. And reasonable peoiple will agree with that, as there is solid, repeated data to support the idea that excess intake of fatty foods and heart attacks.

    The issue Sashka raises is the connection between increased CO2 emission and extreme weather. There are reasonable theories that make this connection, but it is by no means proven, and there is data that doesn’t support that conclusion. The extreme weather event question is solidly in the “just don’t know yet” category.

    Again, this is not to diispute the question of increased temperature and increased CO2; there is a solid theoretical basis for this connection and solid, repeated data to back that up. But extreme weather? That is a hard sell to make right now and the automatic assumption that increased CO2 will “raise the odds” of extreme weather events does not qualify as a proven axiom. 

  • http://thingsbreak.wordpress.com/ thingsbreak

    @Keith Kloor:
    For example, when we hear about the imminent “dust-bowl-ification” of the American Southwest or Australia, the discussion does not include the obvious risk of city-building in arid, marginal landscapes, and the kinds of policies in place that put populations there increasingly vulnerable to wildfires, extended droughts, etc.

    Keith, what you’re describing (along with the continued incentivizing of building in tropical storm/tornado/flood vulnerable areas) is pretty commonly noted in the literature on disaster impacts, and also something warned against in comprehensive mitigation+adaptation proposals. It’s sometimes referred to as maladaptation. It’s frequently brought up by people like myself whenever opponents of mitigation claim that adaptation will be cheaper/easier/sufficient.

    As to why it doesn’t get more attention in debates about climate change, it’s my hunch that because those non-GHG-related issues are relatively uncontroversial no one has anything to argue about. Inevitably the lack of argument is used as the pretext for an argument about why the “climate-concerned” don’t care about maladaptation.

    This is why I think global warming needs to be folded into a larger debate about sustainability. Because if we don’t change our patterns of land use and development, reducing greenhouses gases isn’t going to be enough to save cities like Los Angeles, Miami, or Phoenix.

    Sure. But again, I’m not sure there’s much disagreement that GHGs are not the only problem. But, conversely, many problems associated with climate change can’t be remedied by focusing on non-GHG-sustainability issues.

    People should push co-benefits at every opportunity. That doesn’t mean that we should pretend stabilizing emissions will ameliorate the other sustainability problems, or that focusing on those problems will solve the GHG emissions problem.

  • Sashka

    Keith,

    I’m not a medical doctor, but I’d venture that medical researchers have a reasonably good grip on the contributions of fatty diet and lazy lifestyle to the risk of heart disease. Stats will tell you that factors X and/or Y will raise your chances of getting a heart attack by P% within 99% confidence interval. Or something like that. These facts don’t necessarily convince everyone to change the lifestyle but this is a good basis to balance personal preferences against hard reality.

    This is why it is necessary to quantify such a risk. Until and unless the risk is quantified there is no basis for making the choice to mitigate/adapt/ignore.

  • Dean

    Another aspect of this is the timeline of these contributions. The actual physical impacts of AGW have just started to be felt in recent decades and any significant contribution to extreme events is probably even more recent than that. And of course others argue that they are not contributing at all yet and might do so in the future.

    As such, _preventing_ that impact from starting or nipping it in the bug before it becomes a much larger factor puts it in a somewhat different category than land use patterns, for which large cities housing vast populations have already been built around. Yes – the technology that leads to AGW is just as built-up as our land use patterns (at least in some countries), so the question then becomes just how high the costs are. We have no doubt about the cost of rebuilding cities. There is much more doubt about the cost of strong mitigation policies.

  • jeffn

    “I’d venture that medical researchers have a reasonably good grip on the contributions of fatty diet and lazy lifestyle to the risk of heart disease.”
    I believe this too. Of course I also believed they had a good grip on the effect of salt on hypertension and stress on ulcers. Both were wrong.
    There are a lot of good reasons to eat healthy and be active- so do so.
    There aren’t alot of good reasons to tax twinkies on the basis that some percent of people may become fat with some miniscule portion of the fat due to twinkies the result of which might be some small part of one of the many reasons they died marginally earlier than their genetics predicted. Mostly this is true due to the fact that folks who are predisposed to eat twinkies, facing a high tax on twinkies, will either continue to eat twinkies or choose an alternative that’s just as fatty – causing constant bureaucratic review of the list of things thou shalt not have and a never-ending series of targeted tax hikes.
    Funny how the result is always more federal employees to tell you more things you cannot have and needing more and more of your money.

  • http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.com Roger Pielke Jr.

    The fact is, we do know something quantitative about the relative role played by different factors in disaster losses, past and projected, hence Dan Sarewitz and I wrote 7 years ago in The New Republic:

    “Prescribing emissions reductions to forestall the future effects of disasters is like telling someone who is sedentary, obese, and alcoholic that the best way to improve his health is to wear a seat belt.”
    http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/admin/publication_files/resource-1694-2005.01.pdf

    Lemonick still wants to focus attention on the lesser risk, not the overwhelmingly greater risk. There is no trick question here — if you want to reduce the toll of disaster losses the levers that matter are clear.

    There are good reasons to reduce emissions, of course, but modulating future disasters is not very high on that list.

  • Sashka

    @ 6

    The actual physical impacts of AGW have just started to be felt in recent decades

    Have they really?

  • PDA

    Quantification is exactly the point. In this analogy, it’s more important to emphasize smoking cessation – as many of 20% of all heart attack deaths can be directly attributed to smoking-related coronary disease – over, say, B-vitamin deficiency.

    Likewise, climate change is arguably more significant than development patterns in terms of the increasing risk of drought in places like the US Southwest. That doesn’t mean you ignore land-use policies – one can, after all, walk and chew gum at the same time – but it’s reasonable for policymakers to make climate change more a priority than, for example, the impact of new construction on riparian ecosystems.

    But maybe I’m misunderstanding the point here. 

  • Dean

    @9

    I suppose you read my whole post where I included this: “And of course others argue that they are not contributing at all yet and might do so in the future.”

    I should have included “some argue that . . .” ahead of what you quoted me on.

  • Tom Scharf

    If the climate community were asked about the example given, they would say the bus killed the man, end of story.

    In most cases, the extreme weather event attribution never goes past the plausible theory phase.  There simply isn’t any “there” there.  

    Global cyclone energy is at or near all time low for example.  We are at an all time record for consecutive days since a Cat3 or greater hurricane made landfall in the US.  The latest plausible “theory” now is that global warming increases sheering winds that actually decrease hurricane activity.

    Examining the actual data shows little or no significant trends in almost all extreme weather events that have been blamed on global warming.  Of course it is mighty convenient when “some scientists” say global warming causes “more snow” and others say “less snow” and you can have it both ways at your whim.

    Rare events cannot be statistically analyzed unless there are very long records to establish long term trends and we simply don’t have the data.  There. is. not. enough. data.

    Most of the extreme weather attribution appears to be naked opportunism by activists, and this only works to decrease credibility in my opinion.  

    It may not strike as significant to many here who have become desensitized to these claims, but for me, the whole game really went downhill when claims started to be made that global warming increased snowfall and made winters more severe.  This was ill advised, and in combination with messaging changes to “climate change” showed lack of confidence in their own message and desperation for a “cause”.

    The post mortem of the failed messaging on this issue is just that, that it has all been about “messaging” and manipulation of opinion all along, and not about the science.  The science was conveniently co-opted to support other favorite green agendas.  A means to an end for most activists.  I wonder how many true believers there really are out their.
     

  • Dean

    @8

    If there are good reasons to reduce emissions, then every reason for doing so should be mentioned, not just the most important.

    Furthermore, sometimes lesser risks may be more easily addressed than higher risks. I acknowledge that may be arguable in this case, but is is being argued.

    Btw, when it comes to losses from disasters in the US, it seems to me that much has been done and attempted wrt land use patterns. Efforts to prevent rebuilding in flood zones for example, are common. So whatever one makes of the current or potential contribution of AGW to flood losses, it’s not like we’re not addressing other issues.

  • NewYorkJ

    The problem I have with the severe weather/climate debate is that all those other contributing factors Lemonick mentions largely get ignored, so that the global warming angle can remain paramount.

    I notice the opposite.  Whenver a severe weather event occurs, it tends to get explained away with la Nina or what not (meteorologists have a tendency to do this), and any potential global warming contribution is usually ignored.

  • Dean

    #12

    “There. is. not. enough. data.”

    Isn’t that the crux of the matter now? There isn’t enough data now so it is not possible to find such a signal. It is not possible mathematically. As such, the lack of the a signal in the stats really proves nothing. Analyzing statistics at this point in time proves neither that there is a contribution nor that there isn’t.

    Claims that there is a contribution are based on our understanding of how the atmosphere works, how various kinds of events occur, and what contributes to them.

    For example, we know that AGW is adding more moisture to the atmosphere, so it is plausible that there is an AGW contribution to events for which the amount of moisture in the atmosphere plays a role. This is not proof, but it is also not invalid to discuss or propose.

    I acknowledge that some such discussion are outlandish, such as that melting ice is causing earthquakes. But for some kinds of events, it is likely that these processes are contributing to events, and that as data accumulates statistics will eventually validate it. But there is no point in staying silent about these processes in the mean time.

  • Dean

    I’d like to add one thing to my surge of posts here regarding he word plausible. Much weighs on this and I think that there is a significant disconnect from its popular usage and its scientific usage.

    Here is the first online definition from Merrian-Webster:
    superficially fair, reasonable, or valuable but often specious


    I then searched starting with “science definitions” and came up with this:
    Plausible describes something that is highly likely.


    This is an important distinction, noting for example that plausible is the word that the NAS report used regarding most of the Hockey Stick conclusions. I think that the latter scientific definition applies to AGW contribution to certain types of extreme events. I would add that RP Jr has acknowledged evidence of a connection with wildfires.
     

  • huxley

    Because if we don’t change our patterns of land use and development, reducing greenhouses gases isn’t going to be enough to save cities like Los Angeles, Miami, or Phoenix.

    Are we really going to lose Los Angeles, Miami, or Phoenix?

  • http://thingsbreak.wordpress.com/ thingsbreak

    @17 huxley:
    Are we really going to lose Los Angeles, Miami, or Phoenix?

    For what it’s worth, I read that in the context of “saving them from avoidable disasters”, not total annihilation.

  • Rick

    Don’t forget the singularly most correlated factor in the whole discussion - population!  The world population has more than *DOUBLED* in the past 50 years to it’s almost unsustainable level of 7 billion.  *THAT* is the major “sustainability” issue – sure, we can all use a bit less and find more renewable sources, but it’s all a moot point if we keep adding more and more consumers to the planet’s precious resources.

  • Nullius in Verba

    Another thing people forget is that on the other side of the balance sheet the triple bacon cheeseburgers taste very nice.

    You have to weigh the costs against the benefits – you cannot just say “this has a cost, therefore we must ban it”. Even when people know that fatty foods put their risks up, they still eat them. All the public health casmpaigns over the past few decades have not stopped them. It’s not because they haven’t heard. It’s not because they don’t understand. It’s not even because they don’t believe you, although you should probably be more sceptical about it than the health campaigners say. It’s because they like fatty foods, and they’re willing to take the risk in order to enjoy their pleasures.

    There are some people, though, who cannot accept that. Their mission is to improve people’s health, to save lives. They’ll start with information campaigns and gentle nudging, but if that doesn’t work, then stronger measures are needed if their goal is to be achieved. And they’ll start applying taxes, introducing regulations, labelling, denormalising, discouraging, excluding until it becomes acceptable to enforce it. It’s for your own good, after all, so why would you ever object?

    The difference between fatty food and fossil fuel is that one does damage only to the individual consumer, while the other supposedly harms others. Then we’re talking about collective cost-benefits, and political decision-making. Now obviously we still need to agree collectively that the activity does cause harm – I can tell everyone that voting Democrat will cause the Earth to stop spinning, but you probably wouldn’t believe me. It requires democratic assent.

    So if you’re going to ascribe the death of the man running for the bus to some particular cause with the purpose of making a case for banning it, it’s important to understand how it is only one of many factors, how significant it is, how confidently it is known, and how it compares to the benefits of continuing with the activity in question. If it turns out that by giving the full context the case for a ban becomes far less persuasive, that’s something people ought to know.

    And if it turns out that the claims made are on scientifically dodgy ground, and fatty food sceptics start pulling up stuff like the “obesity paradox” and similar effects, then it is even more important that people know about it, and the collective decision is made with the proper diligence and attention to honesty, accuracy, and quality that is appropriate to decisions affecting billions of other people’s lives.

  • PDA

    I agree with everything NiV said, and find it rather amusing that we probably draw different conclusions from the same premises…

  • Sashka

    @ 19

    Elephant in the room alert.

  • huxley

    Another problem with the cheeseburger analogy is that, give or take a few decades, everyone dies whether they eat cheeseburgers or not.

    Barring a huge catastrophe, Los Angeles is not going to die any time soon. Its desirability as a place to live and consequently its population will no doubt change, but that’s a different level of issue.

    As to the sustainability of cities — we’ve heard environmentalists go on and on and on about that since the sixties. So far they’ve mostly been wrong.

  • PDA

    @22: if you think regulating carbon emissions is controversial, wait until someone proposes regulating infant emissions.

  • Sashka

    @ 24
    Perhaps you heard of that little country … What’s it called? … China maybe?

  • Jack Hughes

    Great news about the 7 billion. These people are living in the best days ever for freedom, comfort, lifestyle,  food availability, music, literature, cinema. You name it.

    I will live longer than my father, travel further, eat better, ski faster. I can read every book he read – and more. I can listen to any music he heard – and more. I can eat all the types of food he ate – and more.

    And guess what? It’s getting better and better.  

  • PDA

    Sashka, are you suggesting jìhuà shÄ“ngyù zhèngcè isn’t massively controversial? Reagan and Bush The Younger pulled us out of UNFPA about it.

  • Sashka

    You said “wait until someone proposes”, didn’t you? I am suggesting that there is nothing to wait for. The solution (within one but most populous country) has long been implemented. To me, it’s overdone in the sense that two children would be a better policy. Nevertheless it’s a great example to follow for the rest of the world. Much more useful that controlling CO2 emissions.
     

  • Paul Kelly

    Hasn’t it been established that the problem is not a lack of properly framed information? How many more billions of dollars, thousands of papers, endless meetings and countless blog posts will it take to prove that, no matter what danger AGW presents, it is neither the most immediate nor the most certain danger ahead.

  • Michael Larkin

    Nullius,

    Great post! :-)

  • Susan Anderson

    There’s another way to put it.  I think Kevin Trenberth made the point that the climate has changed enough already that all weather events show some trace of the effects of global warming.  The undoubted fact that one cannot attribute any single event to global warming is twisted to seem to mean one cannot attribute any event to climate change due to global warming enhanced by man-made emissions of fossil fuels and other greenhouse gases, and exacerbated by other forms of increased human exploitation with an expanding population on a finite planet.  No single does not equal all.
    It’s only the wonky types with their heads in computers or local weather who haven’t noticed the extraordinary preponderance of increase in extreme weather, loss of arctic ice, droughts, floods, socioeconomic stress, food supply, fish loss, ocean acidification, and on and on. 
    Nullius in Verba has hidden his subtle dart for the second half of his screed, as is his wont, and his fans are oblivious to the subtle misdirection and mauling of the metaphor.
    I think we need to return to the point at hand; metaphor can only go so far.  We are talking about climate and increasing risk of over-the-top consequences if we continue accelerating our exploitative path.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “It’s only the wonky types [...] who haven’t noticed the extraordinary preponderance of increase in extreme weather, loss of arctic ice, droughts, floods, socioeconomic stress, food supply, fish loss, ocean acidification, and on and on.”

    It’s only the wonky types who look at the actual statistics and know that there has been no detectable change in extreme weather. What there has been is a dramatic increase in extreme weather reporting, generally connecting every phenomenon under the sun to its ultimate cause: Global Warming.

    There is no increase in extreme weather, arctic ice loss has other causes, droughts and floods are the same as they have always been, socioeconomic stress has been dropping rapidly over the past century with the global spread of industrial, technological capitalism, we’ve got more food, and indeed more food per capita than we have ever had in all the millions of years of human history, overfishing has nothing to do with climate, and ocean acidification has happened before and is probably not a major problem. Life is very adaptable.

    It’s all garbage. Scare story after scare story, all with the aim of pushing the same political message. It’s not even supported by the mainstream science, shonky as it is. Climate science may or may not predict serious consequences in the future, but the effect is too small as yet to be detectable except by averaging over continents for decades. As far as local weather goes, it is buried in the noise.
     And every time the advocates try to boost the urgency by exagerating the present-day impacts, it’s an own goal as far as their credibility is concerned.

    It’s why we push the ‘snow as global warming’ meme. If you want to claim weather is climate, then heavy snow is proof Al Gore was wrong. If you want to respond to our snow jokes by telling us weather is not climate, it spreads the message. Weather is not climate. Weather events are not evidence for or against Global Warming. Yes, I know it has more dramatic impact in the propaganda war, but it is -Not- -True-.

    This continual internal conflict between scientific sense that says selling perfectly ordinary weather as a Sign of climate change is a Bad Idea, and the insistent urge to find some way round this to be able to make use of weather drama without incurring the penalties, is most entertaining. You flip-flop from one to the other with astonishing frequency. There are increasingly strained attribution studies, and appeals to “everybody knows that…” factoids.
    We’ve experienced several decades of the best the advertising industry can throw at us. We can see what you’re doing.

    Our “exploitative path” has bought us food, prosperity, health, longer life, a cleaner environment, and for the first time ever a genuine hope for the future that the rest of mankind might too emerge from the long dark ages of miserable drudgery, poverty, disease, famine, and early death. It is the best thing that has ever happened to us, and it’s going to get even better. It will give us everything we want, and even most of what you are asking for, too. And yet, amazingly, there are people who want to kill all of this off. Malthusians who see imminent disaster hovering perpetually just around the corner, who want us to stop, and retreat to where we were before: at the mercy of a hostile environment. Idealists with a romantic, ‘Walt Disney’-style understanding of how the world works.

    I do sometimes wonder what future historians will make of it all. History, I think, will judge global warming to be already on the decline at this date, just as with all the fads and scares that went before. But something new will be along soon enough. People never change.

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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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