Cliff Mass and Mike Wallace at the University of Washington have expressed some thoughts on the hype associated with climate change and extreme events.
Mass writes on his blog:
It is happening frequently lately. A major weather event occurs—perhaps a hurricane, heat wave, tornado outbreak, drought or snowstorm– and a chorus of activist groups or media folks either imply or explicitly suggest that the event is the result of human-caused (anthropogenic) global warming. Perhaps the worst offender is the organization http://www.350.org and their spokesman Bill McKibben. Close behind is Climate Central, which even has anextreme weather/climate blog. The media has noted many times that the U.S. in 2011 experienced a record 14 billion-dollar weather disasters–and many of the articles imply or suggest a connection with human-forced global warming. Even the NY Times has jumped into the fray recently, giving front-page coverage of an unscientific survey that found that a large majority of Americans believe recent extreme weather events are the result of anthropogenic global warming. One does not have to wonder very hard about where Americans are getting their opinions–and it is not from the scientific community.
It is somewhat embarrassing for me to admit this, but part of the problem is that a small minority of my colleagues–people who should know better– are feeding the extreme-weather/climate hype in the mistaken belief that by doing so they can encourage people to do the right thing–lessen their carbon footprint.
Writing in the LA Times yesterday, Mike Wallace takes issue with the cavalier linkage of the March heat wave to human-caused climate change, reminding us that climate is complex:
The cause of last month's strange weather was an extraordinarily large and persistent meander of the jet stream that swept tropical air, with temperatures reaching into the 80s as far north as southern Canada.
Likening today's climate system to a muscle-bound, drugged athlete performing feats far beyond the capabilities of straight athletes would be appropriate if the extreme and persistent distortions of the jet stream we saw in March could be demonstrated to have been caused by global warming.
But let's remember where the burden of proof lies. In the world of sports, when an athlete is accused of relying on performance-enhancing drugs, it is the prosecutor who must prove the case. The same should apply to claims that the behavior of the jet stream is being profoundly altered by global warming. Thus far, such assertions are not well supported by scientific evidence.
In the absence of proof that the jet stream's variability is human-induced, we must consider the possibility that the apparent weirdness of the weather in March isn't all that weird if viewed in a larger historical context. In this respect, it's noteworthy that large areas of the U.S. were just about as warm in March 1910 as they were in March 2012. With weather, weird things happen every now and again.
Fortunately, the flora and fauna and the human inhabitants of temperate latitudes are accustomed to dealing with huge swings in wintertime temperatures, and so most of the effects of March Madness will be short-lived.
Over the long term I have every confidence that scientific questions will be resolved using the tools of science. In the meantime, it sure is nice to see these prominent scientists standing up for the integrity of their field, even if it means sticking their necks out and risking criticism from a few overly enthusiastic scientists and reporters.