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Report helps scientists communicate how global warming is worsening natural disasters

Posted on 8 December 2016 by John Abraham

Climate scientists have done a great job winning the scientific arguments about climate change. To be clear about what I mean, we have done a very good job investigating whether or not the Earth’s climate is changing (it is), what is causing the change (humans), how much will it change in the future, and what will be the impacts. 

There are no longer any reputable scientists who disagree with the principle view of that human emissions will cause climate change that will lead to societal and human losses (they already are). So, I use the term “win” here not to indicate it was a battle of “us” versus “them”. Rather, I mean “win” in that we have faithfully followed the scientific method, explored alternative hypotheses, checked and rechecked our work, and have come to a truth that is unassailable. We’ve done our job.

In the past, that is where our job ended. I mean maybe we would help with a press release on a breaking study, do an interview. But only rarely.

Now, particularly with an issue like climate change, that has such an impact on peoples’ lives, scientists are being asked to go further. We are being asked to effectively communicate to the public why this matters, what will happen if we take action or not, and what some trade-offs are. This means we can be put in an uncomfortable position where we’re forced to advocate. Some of my colleagues are understandably skittish about advocacy and avoid it religiously. Others, like myself, will advocate on occasion but be very clear about when the scientist hat comes off and the advocate hat is put on. 

But regardless, scientists are tasked with communicating complex science in a short amount of time, to people with varied backgrounds. This is a really tough ask, especially when we are not trained at it. Fortunately, we are getting help. The art of effective scientific communication is being shared with scientists to help us properly convey concepts.

A very recent publication by several communication experts has been published in the World Meteorological Organization Bulletin. The lead author, Susan Hassol and her co-authors weave together effective language and accurate science in an uncommonly profound way. The results are simple suggestions that the rest of us can use to be both true to facts as well as clear.

The article centers around the influence human-caused warming has had on natural disasters. We know that some disasters, such as coastal and flash floods, heat waves, heavy rainfall, and drought are increasing. But how do we talk about the human effect on such events? The authors remind us that heavy rainfall that can cause flooding has increased markedly because warm air holds more water. 

Regarding heat waves, the summer-long extreme heat of 2013 in Australia was made approximately 5 times more likely due to human-caused warming; and there are other examples reviewed. Now, this doesn’t mean that climate change was the sole cause of a particular event. And this is the fallback position of most scientists. Our hesitancy to highlight the role of human warming in individual events makes listeners think that the influence of climate change on extreme weather is smaller than it really is. 

It is more accurate to say that all weather events are now influenced by climate change. Some weather events are coming on stronger; they last longer, or are more severe. As a result, climate change is increasing the impact of these events. The authors reviewed various examples of extreme weather events for which attribution studies allow scientists to make meaningful statements about the role of human-caused climate change. 

Another point made in the paper is that with acute weather events, speed of reporting is key. We need to speak with as much clarity as possible while a weather event is still in the media. Fortunately, advances in scientific understanding are enabling us to make statements about the human influence on extreme events that can be conveyed through the media to the interested public. It is important to make these connections while events are still a matter of public interest.

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Comments 1 to 13:

  1. The communication suggestions at the end of the article cited are actually very good. (For those who want to skip the long read and get to the suggestions at the end.) The challenge, however, is immense: Explaining how uncommonly frigid air is linked to climate change; Explaining how a 0.2° C trend can be significant in locations where the weather jumps 24° from one day to the next; Explaining that effects that will happen hundreds of years into the future demand urgent attention now (I live below sea level!); And attribution studies that references probability — even with topics like public works it is hard to convince people not to spend $1 million on an intersection where an accident has in fact occurred and to rather spend it on general measures for the other 1000 intersections which are equally vulnerable. Action demanded by climate change by its nature conspires against the instinctual prejudices of the human mind.

    I remain nevertheless convinced that even well-intentioned conservatives can be turned into allies for action against climate change once one is able to trigger their loyalty instincts for the preservation of the things they care about.

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  2. Climate change does indeed have wide implications, and perhaps these are hard for some people to assimilate as they are complex and longer term. But we have to try, because climate change is an issue best addressed now and not left to some desperate and high risk geoengineering solution.

    Renewable energy is inevitable anyway because fossil fuels are a finite resource, so we might as well start making the transition now. We need to get people to see climate change is just bringing the inevitable forwards, and this transition is inevitable. We need to get people to see the change in a positive light, and then things will take off.

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  3. I've just come across someone touting this paper "Trends in Extreme Weather Events since 1900 An Enduring Conundrum for Wise Policy Advice" Kelly MJ*
    Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge, 9 JJ Thomson Avenue, Cambridge CB3 0FA, UK

    Any critiques or rebuttals?

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  4. Jonbo69 @3, I had a very quick read of the paper. He claims weather has if anything got less extreme globally over the last 50 years. His paper is a massive cherry picking of very selective weather events, and a couple of selective countries that happen to suit his case.

    He also takes a reduction in flood costs in America to mean less floods when this may obviously not be the case. The paper is complete rubbish.

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  5. nigelj

    Thanks. I ended up doing a bit more research anyway and found the journal the paper was published in to be extremely dodgy, plus i took a closer looke at the references which included A. Watt, Roger Peike Junior, the GWPF etc. That aside, are there any up-to-date papers on the subject of extreme weather that are worth referencing?

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  6. Related to the previous question: The paper cites "Two separate studies [that] found that the 2013 extreme heat in Australia would have been virtually impossible without human-caused climate change."  Is there a good compendium of other very high confidence associations like this?

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  7. Jonbo69: "are there any up-to-date papers on the subject of extreme weather...?"

    How about a book:

    Attribution of Extreme Weather Events in the Context of Climate Change by: Committee on Extreme Weather Events and Climate Change Attribution; Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate; Division on Earth and Life Studies; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
    National Academies Press | 200 pages | ISBN: 978-0-309-38094-2 | DOI: 10.17226/21852 | 2016

    NAP official book page - The PDF is free to download from NAP; or you can buy the dead tree edition.

    Google Books entry
    Goodreads entry

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  8. Jonbo69 - also see:

    Hansen, James, Makiko Sato, and Reto Ruedy. "Perception of climate change." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109.37 (2012): E2415-E2423.

    Google Scholar entry with links to the Open Access paper online

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  9. #Daniel

    Many thanks

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  10. Jonbo @69, I dont have any in depth list in my head of research on extreme weather, as I just take a general interest in climate change. However I came across this media article a while ago which discusses quite specific storms and and floods in Britain and evidence linking them to climate change. It's a good overview style of article, but with links to several specific published papers which may interest you.

    Much of the weather research papers appear to be on certain trends in certain countries and finds some things changing and some not changing or even getting less severe. Its so hard to make sense of this as an individual and one or two papers on specific events dont give the full picture.

    However James Hansen did an overview of global extreme weather by looking at a large number of events and countries, and concluded its getting more extreme. Im pretty sure thats the paper quoted above. This is probably as near as you would get to a definitive single paper.

    I think we have to trust the IPCC as well. They review all the research to see what it adds up to as a global trend overall, and have broadly concluded certain things are getting worse globally (including heat waves and heavy rain events) and its too soon to be certain about others like hurricane activity. Their summary for policy makes is online. Its hard for an individual to do such a big review,  so I have to put my faith in the team of experts who serve on the IPCC.

    And you will get a lot of regional variation. Some weather may get less extreme in some places because of regional factors, and this is ripe for cherry picking by climate sceptics. I'm interested in the big global picture, and it does seem certain weather is generally becoming more extreme overall.

    In comparison the skeptical study you mentioned seems to have an agenda. The author listed too few cases to be able to draw conclusions. We know not all weather events will get more extreme everywhere so its complicated, therefore you have to look at a very wide selection of events and regions before drawing a conclusion.

    The author also made claims about temperature trends my country of New Zealand which I strongly dispute and I have local knowledge of the issues he raised.

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  11. "Rather, I mean “win” in that we have faithfully followed the scientific method, explored alternative hypotheses, checked and rechecked our work, and have come to a truth that is unassailable. We’ve done our job."

    That would be the end of it if you're talking about a field of science such as astronomy that normally has almost no impact on any entrenched interests (individual lifestyles, organized religions, or large-scale industries). (Of course astronomy hasn't always stayed out of trouble - back in the 1600s Galileo found himself in conflict with the religious authorities when he failed to discover the required truth. Astronomers then were in the unfortunate position of today's climate scientists, having to debunk popular delusions, and suffering the predictable unpleasant backlash.)

    Or that would be the end of it when scientists report only to narrow patron groups with stable and predictable reasoning processes, such as the military brass (for weapons research), venture capitalists, and so on.

    Sadly for humanity's survival prospects, climate truth is readily assailable. It's getting more successfully assailed than any other field of science. Even a man with no scientific training can win the juiciest prize in politics - the US Presidency - by denying climate science. Donald Trump's falsehoods resonate deeply with (just enough) voters, which means climate truth is not only assailable, it's one of the softest targets out there. If climate truth were actually "unassailable," then denying it would immediately disqualify a person for high office. But the opposite is true now. The complex and abstract nature of the science, and the unwelcome implications for the American lifestyle, make the science eminently assailable. Especially in light of the audience having been preconditioned by years of right-wing attacks on science.

    Climate science is nothing like many other less consequential areas of science. It's about as far-reaching as fighting World War II, but with a much longer commitment time. Total war requires near-total agreement from nearly every member of the general population. The climate scientist's job isn't done until there is nearly complete buy-in from the public. Merely convincing the tiny handful of fellow trained experts is just the first step out of base camp on the climb up Mount Everest. (Unless scientists don't care about what happens to humanity, and are merely interested in acquiring knowledge which will soon be lost when climate chaos ushers in a new dark age and life goes back to being nasty, brutish, and short.)

    The difficulty is that humanity has an overall budget for "allowable" greenhouse gas emissions. (Picking a temperature target roughly fixes the maximum atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases which in turn roughly fixes the total cumulative amount of durable greenhouse gases we can dump in the atmosphere.) Dividing the total by the global population (which is still growing by over 200,000/day) gives the remaining allowance per individual. Dividing that by the number of years until some target date when we expect humanity's net annual emissions to become zero (which doesn't even seem possible, but we have to assume it will be or we can just commit suicide now) gives the individual's annual emission allowance - and it comes to something less than 2 tonnes of CO2e/yr, about one tenth of the average American's emissions. This assumes we will have an equitable solution for climate change. If not - if some individuals are to be privileged, with a right to dump more greenhouse gas pollution than other individuals - then the high emitters need to justify their privilege somehow, and enforce it on the low emitters who aspire to become high emitters.

    Naturally almost no one in the English-speaking world wants to frame the problem in terms of individual emissions (which is the only logically coherent framing, since the individual is unit of climate change causation, much as the individual heroin user is the unit of the heroin problem), because most native English speakers are among the world's top billion individual emitters. Even worse, the ruling class in almost every country consists of individuals from the top few centiles of greenhouse gas emissions for that country. The people who are talking to our high-emitting rulers are themselves mostly high emitters in proportion to their income level: scientists. It's hard to do cutting-edge science without burning plenty of jet fuel. A quick jaunt to one academic conference can gobble an individual's emission allowance for the whole year.

    The inconvenient truth is inconvenient on more levels than even many people close to the issue want to confront. I think a good way to come to grips with it is to do the following:

    1. Using every available technology or technique, try to reduce your emissions to an honest individual fair share. For most people, this pretty much precludes flying, driving, heating, cooling, eating meat, owning meat-eating pets, or procreating. (If you can find a way to live on your carbon fair share while still doing some or all of those things, great - write a book so I can read it.)
    2. Once you have your emissions somewhat under control, find the climate science denier nearest you (you probably needn't go far - he'll still have a Trump sign up), and try to persuade him or her to repeat what you did in step 1.
    3. If that sounds too daunting, then pick what should be a slightly easier target: a Clinton voter who at least verbally acknowledges scientific reality, but continues to behave as if climate science is bunk (by flying, driving, etc.). Try to talk the person who should know better into behaving as if science is real.

    If we can't even persuade one individual, then we're not nearly ready to try persuading the entire public. You'll find with one individual that you need to identify and destroy multiple onion-peel layers of disinformation he or she has absorbed or self-constructed. There's no way to correct all that damage with just a drive-by public service announcement. It takes lengthy one-on-one commitment and relationship building.

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  12. Daniel Mocsny... You're rather oversimplifying by assigning everything to individual emissions. That's only looking at the demand side of the equation. The problem, I would suggest, is as much (or more) a function of supply. This is a systemic problem related to how we produce energy. If you say the solution is all about demand I think that's a dead end and doomed to failure. In a marketplace where nearly everything is produced using fossil fuel based energy, short of moving into a cave, consumers have little choice but to generate carbon emissions. 

    But as energy markets transition to sources that are free of carbon emissions, then consumers have real choices. They do have the ability to pick and choose and live full productive lives that are free of carbon emissions. Sadly, that only barely exists today.

    The right things are happening. Wind and solar continue to fall in price as FF sources continue to rise. The renewables industry is growing faster than any other energy market segment. Electric cars are now popular in most markets. 

    What's disturbing to me is the potential for an autocratic President to derail such a positive revolution. 

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  13. Whether climate change is or isn't a significant threat, there are great benefits to be had from transitioning to renewable energy. 

    A world where air quality is high and where most countries can be self-sufficient sounds pretty good to me. 

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