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Climate Change A.D.D.

Andrew Freedman @ 11:00 AM

Never before has a mild winter scared anyone other than ski resort operators. In the age of An Inconvenient Truth, warm temperatures have people hypothesizing and worrying: is this global warming?

Most experts are being cautious to distinguish between man made climate change and this wacky winter. Ominously, even the Bush administration, through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), acknowledged last week that warmer winters are expected to occur with increasing frequency due to rising levels of greenhouse gases from human emissions.

Jason Samenow's Forecast

Forecast Confidence: Medium-HighToday: Mostly cloudy and mostly dry but a few spotty light showers are possible (40% chance). Mild with highs around 65.
Tonight: Mostly cloudy, lows in the low 50s.
Tomorrow: Mostly cloudy and continued mild with a few scattered light showers possible in the afternoon (40% chance). Highs in the low 60s.

A detailed week ahead forecast will appear tomorrow.

Climate researchers may be thrilled that there is so much attention being paid to a reality they've been warning about in increasingly shrill tones for the past several decades, but it's worth asking whether the spotlight is emanating from the most productive place in the public consciousness.

The central problem is that Americans seem to be viewing climate change at least partly through the framework of extreme weather events. There are several drawbacks to this. Firstly, climate scientists cannot directly link one hurricane, heat wave or even one or two mild winters to greenhouse gas emissions. While the link between a warm week in January and emissions from SUVs seems logical to an ordinary citizen, to scientists it's fraught with complexity.

Secondly, an extreme weather approach hinders the building of a sustained and intense effort to adapt to and mitigate climate change by depending on a chaotic system - the weather - to serve up extreme events in increasing numbers and severity in order to hold people's attention.

This means more Hurricane Katrina's would be needed for the public to stay focused on the issue. And more European heat waves. More super storms of 1993. Oh dear... it sounds like the plot of a Michael Crichton science fiction novel.

What happens the next time we have a colder than normal winter, which is likely to occur. Are people still going to care about climate change?

Warm winters are a tangible entry point for the public to be introduced to climate change, and an ideal environment for Al Gore to win an Oscar. But it's wise for climate researchers and policy advocates to get the message out that it's the long term trend that counts, not one event or one season or even two seasons in a row. And that long term trend is irrefutably warmer. And it may lead to extreme weather events, but does not mean that every winter will be mild or that every hurricane will be a monster storm.

Whereas the longer term warming trend may be alarming to climate researchers, it can easily fail the person on the street test.

For the purposes of this column that person will be named Doug Torstenson. Right now Doug can smell the flowers that are blooming, feel the warm breezes flowing up the Potomac, and see the green fairways on the local golf course to which he looks longingly, thinking of his clubs still in the trunk of his car from last summer. And Doug looks at the sunny sky and asks, 'What the f. is going on?'

Andrew C. Revkin of the New York Times wrote an interesting piece last weekend in which he raised the link between the weather and action on climate change. The story discussed the possibility that the lack of federally-mandated greenhouse gas reduction measures in the United States might be partly explained by the country's diverse weather. Even during this warm winter, for example, parts of the country have been slammed with snow.

It's an idea worthy of consideration at the risk of drifting into the dangerous territory of climate determinism. In this country at least, the public's attention to climate change has long been linked to weather events, and the media frenzy over the warm winter is a prime example of this.

Consider, for example, that climate change first made a consistent appearance in the national media during the scorching summer of 1988, when heat and drought were the topic du jour. Also of interest is the effect of the devastating 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons. Those storms got people asking whether climate change wasn't a far off scientific hypothesis, but present day reality. Hurricane Katrina was responsible for a new discourse on the possible links between hurricane intensity and greenhouse gases, a discussion that wouldn't have happened at that time and in such a popularized way had those weather events not slammed into American shores.

Weather doesn't cause people to change their political allegiances or be more technologically advanced than others, but it does cause people to think about things they may not otherwise consider at that particular time. And right now they're alarmed about warming. If the mainstream scientific community is right, the warming is only going to increase. Let's hope that the attention to this issue increases in kind.

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