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Climate change and Haiyan: body bags don’t stop the ghoulish arguments

November 20, 2013

“As Michael Mann noted, we can’t say for sure what impact climate change had on Haiyan because we only have one planet, and we’re running a dangerous experiment with it. But it’s important to ask the right questions when it comes to extreme events like Haiyan. Asking if global warming caused Haiyan is the wrong question”.

Dana Nuccitelli, writing in the Guardian (Will extreme weather like super typhoon Haiyan become the new norm?)

Dana is writing about attribution – the business of determining cause and effect. Since typhoon Haiyan, many media outlets have given considerable time and space to the terrible destruction and loss of life. Many reports have not mentioned climate change at all. Others did so in order to give time to those who insist there is no connection – this despite the fact that if we can’t prove a connection, then neither can we disprove one. A very few have correctly put the storm in context; climate change did not cause Haiyan, but there is no way the additional energy in the climate system now could not have had some effect. We just can’t tell what that effect was, or the extent of it.

The trouble with inadvertently conducting novel experiments on a chaotic system like the climate is that science finds itself in equally novel territory. Constantly reacting to events after they happen, climate science struggles to keep up with the unfolding events, and to constrain the scientific analysis to bounds described by uncertainty. This necessary equivocation puts climate scientists at a disadvantage when confronted by demagogues who seek only to leverage each event for their own purposes, for such people eschew equivocation in favour of hyperbole and disinformation. The prudent uncertainty of science is in stark contrast to those so very certain that Haiyan was not influenced by global warming.

The arguments may rage back and forth, but we should not lose sight of the most important issue: prudence. For the last decade I’ve been writing about climate change primarily from this perspective; science has made numerous predictions which have already come to pass, and the only prudent course of action is to accept what the science tells us, and address the man-made emissions adding energy to an unstable system. Anyone who thinks we can add more energy without the system becoming more unstable isn’t thinking very clearly, nor evaluating the risks in anything approximating a responsible fashion.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Attribution is something we’ll all understand in 50 years or so, when sufficient evidence is available for us to see exactly what effect global warming had on the planet. Unfortunately, arguments about the effect of this extra energy on storms, on sea levels, on droughts and fires, will be rendered rather academic because by that time we will have locked in whatever consequences climate change holds for future generations. We’re rapidly running out of time to do something – anything – about our hubristic interference with nature on a scale so vast, with implicit consequences on a similar scale. Want to see a graphic representation of the violence we’re doing to our environment? Look at photos of the aftermath of Haiyan.

The novelty of our experience means that it’s hard to look to the past for guidance. Science is doing its best to unravel the many influences on climate, to understand the unpredictable nature of climate change in order to predict what might happen next. Such work is vulnerable to cynical commentary and self-serving micro-analysis from the likes of Pielke Jr (also writing in the Guardian but in a less creditable fashion), but all too rarely do we see expressed any preference for the caution and prudence that risks of this magnitude ought to invoke.

Right now, nobody can say for sure to what extent global warming is influencing extreme weather. We could choose to apply a bit of logic here, however. As predicted for a century and more, adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere is causing more energy to be retained. Weather is a system of energy imbalances. More energy available to the climate system will express itself in different ways, but logically it will express itself somehow, somewhere (unless that energy gets buried in the oceans – in which case we can only hope it stays there). And if we keep adding energy to the system, these expressions will become more frequent, and logically more extreme.

The last decade has been one of climatic inconsistency. This is what happens when you destabilise a fragile system, and it should not be surprising that the results are hard to predict. But just as we know we added enough energy to the climate to produce three decades of clear, high-speed, surface warming, we also know the greenhouse gases are still there (more now, of course), and still reflecting energy back down to Earth.

The laws of physics haven’t changed; whatever effects CO2e had on the Earth’s energy budget last century, are continuing this century. The CO2e hasn’t gone anywhere, and nor has the sun, so it is simply logical to assume that although we can’t predict exactly how global warming will affect extreme weather, we can certainly insist it’s going to affect it one way or another.

And lest we forget, while pundits engage in endless – and largely pointless – debate, people are dying. It is their deaths, the hardship and disease, destruction and distress, that should inform our actions and invoke that sense of prudence towards an increasingly uncertain future, not hair-splitting and cherry-picking convenient morsels of self-serving prevarication from so many corpses.

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