The March of Climate Determinism

By Keith Kloor | March 20, 2014 12:35 pm

In the late 2000s, a new climate change story line emerged in the media.

The seeds for this narrative were perhaps sown ten years ago, when a worst-case scenario report commissioned by the Pentagon triggered breathless headlines about a research field known as “abrupt climate change.” Perhaps you saw the 2004 movie.

The sensationalist portrayal of a sudden climate-induced doomsday was dismissed in scientific circles as implausible, but the film caught people’s attention.

What followed was a more sober analysis from Beltway think tanks assessing the linkages between climate change and geopolitical strife. Congress held hearings on the climate/national security nexus and the issue –while politically contentious–was taken seriously in the U.S. military and intelligence communities. Indeed, climate change was projected to be a major driver of future conflicts and instability around the world.

I wrote about this emerging issue on numerous occasions in the late 2000s, including in this space. (Here’s a more recent round-up of high profile studies.)

In the last several years, some scholars and influential pundits have argued that global warming played a major role in the Arab Spring. The notion that climate change sparked Syria’s hellish civil war has also gained currency in some circles.

When we get to this point–when famines and wars with deeply rooted socio-political causes–are attributed to climate change–we are approaching the same territory inhabited by those who routinely cast every severe weather event and catastrophe in the context of climate change. (This unfortunate tendency is rued by some in the climate community.)

Researchers who study the environment/security intersection–and who strive to remain unbiased–know that the climate change-security discourse has taken a problematic direction. (Indeed, some warned about it.) At the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security program, read this new post by Francois Gemenne, who writes:

Debate on the human security dimensions of climate change has often been cast from a deterministic perspective, where global warming will automatically translate into mass migrations, competition for resources and land, and ultimately conflict and devastation. There are two problems with this rhetoric.

To understand those problems, read the whole commentary. And when you’re done, check out this 2007 piece by Mike Hulme, who also warned about the seduction of climate determinism.

  • JonFrum

    Regarding the Pentagon and climate change: there’s a saying in the military that (to paraphrase) no one ever got promoted for not finding/doing what the commander wants. If the order comes down to deal with climate change, the officer who determines that there’s nothing there to see doesn’t move up. And if you don’t move up, they move you out. In the army, they call this the can-do attitude.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Eduardo Gomez

      You are absolutely right.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5OWRRJh-PI&list=FLYJP3MjZQ-BJugrvyegfQ7Q&index=1&feature=plpp_video Alberto Knox

    On the AAAS website there is a link to a great new paper, “What We Know,” written in layman’s terms to explain to the public what the scientific community knows and what the think is likely to come, and what they are unsure about. It is well worth a read. No ‘talking heads’ or commentators, just scientists explaining what they have measured.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    I choose to believe my lying eyes rather than social advocates’ religious fervor. Empirical observation is not a test of faith – it is physical reality.

    http://fwrhn487tjy48uvw13uigsy9ht.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Chart.jpg
    .http://www.climate4you.com/images/MSU%20RSS%20GlobalMonthlyTempSince1979%20AndCO2.gif

    When theory does not accurately predict observation, theory is falsified: it is wrong. Saying it will be correct next Tuesday if we believe today is saying Karl Marx would have worked if the USSR, Nicolae Ceausescu, and Pol Pot had done it harder for longer. The Ceausescus were executed by firing squad Christmas Day 1989. Pol Pot committed suicide in 1998. Russia discovered capitalism and imperialism (Vlad the Hammer). How is true believer North Korea doing?

    • facefault

      Why are you comparing CO2 levels to temperature anomaly rather than to temperature? And which model are those runs from?

      • JH

        He means to show that rising CO2 doesn’t correlate with increasing temp anomaly. I’m not clear on why it matters if he compares to temp or temp anomaly.

        Nor, Unlce Al, is this clear or convincing evidence that CO2 does (or does not) drive climate change. Despite my skeptical bent, I’m inclined to buy Trenberth’s Its-Going-Into-The-Oceans hypothesis – that is, when warm water surfaces, the ocean absorbs less heat, hence that heat stays in the atomosphere; when cold water surfaces, the ocean takes up more heat and the atmosphere doesn’t warm very much. Upshot: There isn’t short term relationship between temp and CO2.

        Uncle Al, try Trenberth’s hypothesis on for size. It explains the steep trend in the 80s and 90s and the shallow trend in the 00s and 10s; it accounts for past 30 yr cycles in temp trend (at least conceptually); it takes nino into account and, by extension, other cycles like PDO.

        But the best thing about it is that it refutes catastrophic warming. It forces the long term temp trend down by at least a third if not half. And it’s all the more sweet that Trenberth the arch warmist thought of it.

        • Tom Scharf

          Right, the inconvenience of “the ocean ate my warming” is that it logical to assume that the ocean can accentuate warming as significantly as it can suppress warming.

          Some warmists like to claim that the 90′s represented a stable, not accentuated, state. Of course they really don’t have any data to back that up since Argo coverage of deep oceans only came online in the 2000′s, otherwise it is proxy estimates (which can be, ahem, interpreted).

          So many of the forcing measurements have only become accurate in the last 20 years. It will take decades before we can really begin to untangle the heat contributors that are today’s scrambled eggs.

          I don’t expect there will be any real progress here for decades because we “don’t know what we can’t know”, which is accurate historical forcing measurements. Not that some might claim to do so. This part of climate science unfortunately proceeds like a glacier.

          • JH

            “Some warmists like to claim that the 90′s represented a stable, not accentuated, state”

            The last refuge from lower climate sensitivity! :)

            It’s true that there’s a shortage of data for heat in the oceans. I really don’t know that much about how Argo measurements are distributed spatially and depth-wise.

            But I’m not sure that it matters. Just as the current “pause” is probably a negative aberration from the long-term trend, the 90s were a positive aberration from the LT trend. So model projections, which are overwhelmingly a weekly disguised extrapolation of the 90s temp trend, have to be too high, as does climate sensitivity. Slam dunk.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com William Masters

    As the earth warms coming out of an ice age, its biota gives off CO2, When the earth cools going into an ice age, it stores CO2. Changes in CO2 follows temperature change, it doesn’t lead it. If that was true, ice ages wold be impossible, because the high CO2 leveles of the inter-glacial ages would prevent it. Heat energy has to come from somewhere (first law of thermo-dynamics), CO2 doesn’t make heat so it can’t warm anything.

  • Buddy199

    Climate science reminds me of economic science. Lots of theories and highly credentialed experts making profound, sweeping statements. But virtually none in either dicipline are able to make accurate, detailed predictions 10 or even 5 years out, let alone decades.

  • Richard Reiss

    From the AAAS “What We Know” series, Richard Alley provides a good overview of the potentially destabilizing effect of shifts in climate. http://vimeo.com/88816756

  • WSBK

    Lots of talk, assumptions, models and theories. When science can accurately predict the local weather a week in advance, I’ll consider they have some honest-to-goodness capability to surmise what might happen two weeks in advance.

    • https://sites.google.com/site/openmct/ Tom Dayton

      Weather is not climate. Weather prediction can remain poor while climate “prediction” is excellent. Weather can be predicted fairly well up to at most about a week in advance, then gets quickly, drastically worse after that. Climate is defined as periods of 30 years or more, so prediction of climate temperature is prediction of a 30-year average, or averaged over longer periods. Climate projections start being accurate about 30 years in advance, peak in accuracy about 50 years in advance, then gradually get worse. Climate is “projected” for each of multiple scenarios of “forcings,” by “predicting” what would happen if those scenarios of forcings came to pass. Climate projections have been quite accurate not just for several decades, but back to one made in the 1890s that was pretty accurate in its projection even over a hundred years later. For a simple explanation of why climate can be predicted well even while weather can be predicted only poorly, search the internet for serendipity easterbrook “weather balloons vs. climate balloons.”

    • https://sites.google.com/site/openmct/ Tom Dayton

      An excellent and entertaining presentation of successful climate predictions from the American Geophysical Union conference can be watched on You Tube by searching the internet for “Tyndall Lecture: GC43I. Successful Predictions.”

  • Raymond Del Colle

    “Scientists have known about global warming for decades. It’s real. Let’s move on to what we can do about it.” http://clmtr.lt/c/ELm0cc0cMJ

  • Judy Cross

    Climate models did not predict the last 17 years. The Climate Scam has been destroyed by Mother Nature . If you want weather prediction that works, go to weatheraction.com , also read, “It’s The Sun Stupid”. by Willie Soon.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »