It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Friday, May 29, 2015

Response to "The Age of Disinformation" Which Ironically Disinforms

A meteorologist grumbles about "global warming" in the way some meteorologists still do at Medium in an article provocatively titled "The Age of Disinformation".
On the other issue, the entire climate change situation has become politicized, which I hate. Those on the right, and those on the left hang out in “echo chambers”, listening to those with similar world views refusing to believe anything else could be true.
Everyone knows the climate is changing; it always has, and always will. I do not know of a single “climate denier”. I am still waiting to meet one.
The debate involves the anthropogenic impact, and this is not why I am writing this piece. Let’s just say the Houston flood this week is weather, and not climate, and leave it at that.
It's not hard to sympathize with him in some ways, 
On the other issue, the entire climate change situation has become politicized, which I hate. Those on the right, and those on the left hang out in “echo chambers”, listening to those with similar world views refusing to believe anything else could be true.
and one could hardly agree more, but then again there is this tired meme:
Everyone knows the climate is changing; it always has, and always will. I do not know of a single “climate denier”. I am still waiting to meet one.
Oh give me a break. But that's not worth bothering about. The trouble is here:
The Houston flooding is a great example. We are being told this is “unprecedented”… Houston is “under water”… and it is due to manmade global warming. 
Yes, the flooding in Houston yesterday was severe, and a serious threat to life and property. A genuine weather disaster that has brought on suffering.

But, no, this was not “unprecedented”.
I responded briefly. I expand a bit on my answer to that piece here.

The thing is, we have to look at each event on the scale of the event. That is, considered only as Houston, this is severe, but stepping back and looking at it as a great swath of territory from Kansas to the gulf that is suddenly extraordinarily wet, it's another matter.

Although it was an extraordinary rain event for Houston, one hard to match outside a tropical storm, it isn't outside the bounds of experience in Texas. Slow moving storm fronts and tropic moisture meet in Texas (and Oklahoma and Kansas) in ways that are rare elsewhere. That's why we get the tornados, after all.

That's not what to make you sit up and take notice. What is striking is the pattern that supported these events, which has been going on all spring and built to a crescendo in May (or at least, I hope it's the crescendo.) It's officially been the wettest month in the state's history, bar none, including hurricane season. I doubt that the runners up included any Mays. It would be interesting to investigate that.

Then there's this well-worn track, which the author wheels out as if it were a novelty:
Back to my point… many professional meteorologists feel like we are fighting a losing battle when it comes to national media and social media hype and disinformation. They will be sure to let you know that weather events they are reporting on are “unprecedented”, there are “millions and millions in the path”, it is caused by a “monster storm”, and “the worst is yet to come” since these events are becoming more “frequent”.
You will never hear about the low tornado count in recent years, the lack of major hurricane landfalls on U.S. coasts over the past 10 years, or the low number of wildfires this year. It doesn’t fit their story. But, never let facts get in the way of a good story…. there will ALWAYS be a heat wave, flood, wildfire, tornado, tyhpoon, cold wave, and snow storm somewhere. And, trust me, they will find them, and it will probably lead their newscasts. But, users beware…
And this is the part I chose to focus my response on.



It's true. A low tornado count could also be an example of climate change.

But what should we be thinking about? Events for which we are prepared, and how much money we save by not having to deal with them? Or events for which we are unprepared?

Costs are disproportionately high from the sorts of severe events that the individual places they hit are unprepared for, especially so the larger and more unprecedented they are.

It is indeed the case that everywhere in Texas has experienced severe flooding before. But it is not the case that the whole state has been this wet before, especially in the absence of a tropical storm. So yes, this is the kind of unusual, high-cost event we should be on the lookout for.

As with hurricanes, there’s some evidence that the more severe tornado occurrences have gained in destructive power, so even if there’s also evidence that they have become more rare, they don’t necessarily become less worrisome. The bottom line, though, isn't about such details.

The point is this. As human caused climate change continues (and probably accelerates) and we get farther and farther from the climate to which we adapted, we will be seeing new types of severe events. The Sandy episode, the current heat in Alaska, the devastating heatwave in India, like the Texas rainfall of last weekend, or the drought in Texas in 2011, seem right up to the edge of what might be considered a normal sort of abnormal event, if not beyond it.

It’s true that the “discourse” on this sort of matter can be clueless and childish. But it’s not true that this particular event isn’t worrisome in the context of climate change.

It's hard to work up statistics on this in general. "Weirdness" is hard to measure well enough to do statistics on.

On severe rainfall events, though, the evidence, as it happens, is already in. Theory, observation and modeling are in accord that the hydrological cycle will speed up and that a larger fraction of precipitation will come in the more extreme events.

While it can be and all too frequently is done in ways that are unjustified, in considering climate change, it does make sense to focus on peculiarly bad events.

(h/t to Willard for the link)

2 comments:

willard said...

I like your argument, MT. We could add to it the fact that most vulnerable properties are uninsured, which exarcebates risks:

> In developing countries, where the dangers are most acute, the annual price tag attached to climate change-induced damages could soon tip the $100bn mark, as rising seas lay waste to coastal communities and other such areas without the requisite defences. True, the risks are well documented and the costs of inaction clear, yet under-threat areas and industries – not least insurance – have been slow to stem the losses, for want of a better understanding about where exactly their focus should lie.

http://www.worldfinance.com/wealth-management/climate-change-and-its-stormy-relationship-with-the-insurance-sector

Texas may be better covered. Still, it's quite clear that water-based reclamations are on the rise:

> In recent years, damage from water and other climate-related perils have emerged to replace fire and theft as the largest source of claim costs for Canada’s property and casualty (P&C) insurers. Systematic under-pricing of water damage risk threatens insurance company profitability and capital and has the potential to lead to property insurance availability issues for both personal and commercial property products.

http://www.cia-ica.ca/docs/default-source/2014/214020e.pdf

PS: The authors excluded seepage from their study, so they are contrarian-proof ;-)

Tom said...

You're just 25 years too early. Keep rehearsing.