The Intersection

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We had a great panel discussion last night. Except for the fact that the moderator confused me with the other Chris Mooney at the outset, I really got a lot out of it. One thing that I learned, however, troubled me.

On December 15, 2006, Vancouver’s Stanley Park got hit by a powerful windstorm (technically an extratropical cyclone or winter storm) which caused tremendous destruction, felling a large number of trees and damaging a sea wall. I saw the aftermath of the storm myself (see image above), and it’s really quite stunning.

However, it seems to have been exploited for political reasons.

Shortly after the storm, Federal Environment Minister John Baird was on the scene to draw a global warming connection, citing the year’s warm winter weather and the recent storm destruction and calling it a “wake up call” and “another reason why we have to act on climate change.” The global warming issue has come on very strong in Canada in recent months, rising to the top of the public’s agenda. It’s my understanding, from talking to folks here, that the devastation of Stanley Park–followed by dramatic media images of the destruction–is one reason why.

Now, to be sure, Canadians should be exercised about global warming. So should we all. But it seems to me that the devastation of Stanley Park should not be used as a reason or justification.

First of all, as has been repeated ad nauseum, it’s impossible to link a single weather event to global warming. Furthermore, unlike hurricanes or tropical cyclones–which are expected to intensify in a warmer world–the picture for extratropical cyclones under climate change is more complicated.

Hurricanes feed off of warm oceans, but extratropical storms draw their energy from the clash between warm tropical and cold polar air, which means climate change could affect them very differently. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, MIT’s Richard Lindzen has pointed out–in an argument that Real Climate’s Raypierre described as Lindzen’s “only valid ‘point’” on that occasion–that as global warming should decrease the pole-to-equator temperature gradient, it should also lead to “less excitation of extratropical storms.” (One complicating factor is that these storms should also dump more precipitation due to more water vapor in the atmosphere under global warming.)

And there’s another problem when it comes to using individual weather events, however extreme, to mobilize people around global warming. When this subject came up on the panel last night, Hadi Dowlatabadi–UBC Professor at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability–pointed out (if I remember correctly) that it’s dangerous to tell the public that they should make sacrifices to curtail global warming and thereby stave off storm destruction. What happens if people do make sacrifices, and then due to the whimsicality of weather, they get hit by another devastating storm anyway? Isn’t this then setting the stage for members of the public to turn around and say, I want my SUV back? (I’m embellishing, but at least as I recall, this was Dowlatabi’s argument).

At this point, I added that it’s also just plain intellectually indefensible to suggest that global warming caused an individual event. There are many reasons for dealing with global warming, which means we have the option of citing the strong ones rather than the weaker, more problematic ones. And that’s what we should do–both because it’s a good political strategy, and because it’s more honest.

In any event, the panel was a success and I hope to be able to post some YouTube clips of it soon enough. (One of my jokes flopped–always a risk with these sorts of things–so you’ll get to watch me bomb.) I do another panel tonight, and then it’s back to D.C……

Comments

  1. #1 Scott Belyea
    March 7, 2007

    But it seems to me that the devastation of Stanley Park should not be used as a reason or justification.

    First of all, as has been repeated ad nauseum, it’s impossible to link a single weather event to global warming.

    Fair enough … but in terms of developing a voter consensus to support short-term action, that’s absolutely irrelevant, I suggest.

    Leaving aside Baird’s short-term political goals, I don’t see that any political party is going to develop support for their program by talking about long-term trends and “too early to tell” and so forth.

    It may be a case of moving in the right direction for somewhat questionable reasons vs. not moving at all.

    I wish it were otherwise, but I don’t think it is …

  2. #2 Richard
    March 7, 2007

    Baird’s visit was indeed a case of political grandstanding to cover up the Prime Minister’s past as a global-warming denier. While I’m glad that the Conservative government is now seeing reason, they can hardly be trusted to lead Canada on this issue.

    You are also correct to point out that this one storm cannot be directly attributed to global-warming. Such storms have have frequently hit unpopulated areas in BC — this one unfortunately hit our beautiful park, while leaving surrounding areas with less damage.

  3. #3 suffenus
    March 7, 2007

    It’s the polar bears, more than anything else. It’s an image Canadians understand, even though most have never seen one.

    As to the weather, true, one event should not be the basis for a conclusion, but Canadians are nervous. Coincidentally, Halifax on the other coast experienced the ravages of hurricane Juan a few years back. This storm had a devastating effect on both the Public Gardens and Point Pleasant Park (a wooded area). We (in Halifax) have had hurricanes before (Edna in the 50′s, and others), but this one was far more destuctive than anything we have seen. Also lots of funny weather across the country- e.g., ice storms instead of blizzards. The prejudicial may outweigh the probative, but since we are years behind in thinking about this stuff, that may not be all bad.

  4. #4 Dave S.
    March 7, 2007

    As to the weather, true, one event should not be the basis for a conclusion, but Canadians are nervous. Coincidentally, Halifax on the other coast experienced the ravages of hurricane Juan a few years back. This storm had a devastating effect on both the Public Gardens and Point Pleasant Park (a wooded area). We (in Halifax) have had hurricanes before (Edna in the 50′s, and others), but this one was far more destuctive than anything we have seen. Also lots of funny weather across the country- e.g., ice storms instead of blizzards. The prejudicial may outweigh the probative, but since we are years behind in thinking about this stuff, that may not be all bad.

    As a fellow Haligonian, I also lived through this storm. As I recall, the global warming angle wasn’t really mentioned at that time. Nowadays the main concern is that why should Stanley Park (ca. 3000 downed trees) receive financial aid when we haven’t seen any such aid for Point Pleasant Park (ca. 57,000 downed trees and only 20% the size of Stanley Park) yet. Politics always has a way of creeping into things.

  5. #5 David Roberts
    March 7, 2007

    Chris, I’d like to hear you address Scott’s point. You’ve frequently said that the use of hurricanes to raise awareness and alarm about global warming is intellectually dishonest.

    OK. Let’s grant that point.

    What else will serve the purpose? There is, after all, a reason so many climate change campaigners make use of hurricanes. They have enormous visceral and emotional power. If we collectively decide to put them aside, what will take their place?

    This isn’t meant as a leading question. I’m honestly interested in your answer. You say it’s “good political strategy” to cite the “stronger reasons.” But, all due respect, that sounds like handwaving.

    What I want to know, from you or your commenters, is: What are those stronger reasons, and what is the evidence that relying on them will be more politically efficacious?

  6. #6 Chris Mooney
    March 7, 2007

    David,
    It’s not dishonest to use hurricanes to raise alarm about global warming *so long as* you do it in an intellectually defensible way. That means not misrepresenting the science, for starters.

    The storm that devastated Stanley Park, incidentally, was not a hurricane, which makes it even trickier. Search the latest IPCC summary for policymakers for the word “cyclone”….there are 10 hits, and in each case, the preceding word is “tropical”….not “extratropical.”

    Anyway, there are lots of impact-oriented reasons, such as the possibility that global warming will lead to the inundation of many heavily inhabited low lying areas, thereby leading to massive societal upheaval. And then there are other types of “moral” reasons…stewardship, duty to future generations, and so forth and so on.

  7. #7 Susannah
    March 7, 2007

    The Stanley Park destruction was indeed treated as a photo-op for politicians of all stripes, both local and national.

    However, I think to many Canadians (at least all Canadians that I personally know) this was completely transparent. Most of us here in BC, even most of the completely urbanized residents of the Lower Mainland, spend or have spent a fair amount of time in forested areas. We have seen blow-downs before. I saw one, a few years back, back-packing near Lonesome Lake, where not a tree was standing as far as I could see; everything lying down like so many matchsticks.

    Stanley Park was especially important to us because it is a small chunk of the forest still allowed to exist within walking distance from downtown, accessible even to those who are tied to the city.

    But a blow-down is a blow-down; they happen. Just like forest fires. I think it’s mainly the politicians who use this one out of context.

  8. #8 Blair
    March 7, 2007

    David,

    The other reason for not blaming global warming for increased storm intensity would be this: “Blame soot, not global warming, for wicked B.C. weather” http://www.canada.com/ottawacitizen/news/story.html?id=b6c0d3f9-52de-4c6f-8e92-ab36bb02d9df

    When you make an intellectually dishonest statement in defence of your cause the science will often jump up and bite you in the nose and once you’ve been shown to be intellectually dishonest once it is hard to get your credibility back.

  9. #9 David Roberts
    March 7, 2007

    Blair, I didn’t ask for a repeat of the familiar lecture. I conceded the point about hurricanes. I’m asking: What other aspects or impacts of global warming a) are intellectually honest by your definition, and b) will be as politically efficacious as hurricanes in raising awareness and alarm about climate change?

  10. #10 llewelly
    March 7, 2007

    When you make an intellectually dishonest statement in defence of your cause the science will often jump up and bite you in the nose and once you’ve been shown to be intellectually dishonest once it is hard to get your credibility back.

    Worse, note that most people simply will not devote the time and energy to distinguish amongst different promoters of similar causes. When the lack of evidence linking the destruction of Stanley Park to AGW is shown, the credibility of everyone who argues that AGW is a problem will be damaged in the eyes of many.

  11. #11 Hank Roberts (no relation to D.)
    March 8, 2007

    > What other aspects or impacts of global warming
    > a) are intellectually honest …
    > and b) will be as politically efficacious as hurricanes in raising awareness …

    Bzzt! Slippery slope, beware using the political effectiveness of a bogus claim as criterion for effective political argument. That way lies, well, politics as bullshit factory.

    As Mr. Lincoln said, people eventually do catch on. I’m hoping for a candidate who’ll stand up and say “quit whining, people, the real damage already in the pipeline won’t hurt you, you’ll be long dead, it’ll hurt your grandchildren, now let’s work for them.”

    I think we see so much attention to hurricanes because too many editors find it easy to flog that notion — it doesn’t offend their editors, who are protective of their advertisers, maybe? It’s easy to get the pictures and sound bites (nowadays, bytes).

    Most people haven’t been personally affected by hurricanes, it’s just “news” stories.

    I’m real serious about this. Getting attached to bogus claims because they make news and get repeated is falling for a sucker play, whether by fake-green politicians or those who like arguing with them.

    Suggested alternative — pick up on news that does matter to people.

    — Spring early this year? Got robins or other seasonal visitors showing in your yard looking for food already but nothing much blooming because they migrated before the bad weather ended?

    — Anyone old enough to remember what a ‘dawn chorus’ of songbirds sounded like in the 1950s? Notice how different dawn sounds now, with a third of them gone missing?

    — Cherry blossoms? already?

    — Plan ahead for hot summer, insulate your attic now before it’s too hot to go up there, put drip irrigation in your garden.

  12. #12 Lars
    March 9, 2007

    Notice how different dawn sounds now, with a third of them gone missing?

    Do you mean a third of the numbers, Hank, or a third of the diversity?

  13. #13 Chris Mooney
    March 10, 2007

    Folks, Dave Ng of The World’s Fair has more on this “dangerous “form of persuasion that links things like the destruction of Stanley Park in Vancouver to global warming:
    http://scienceblogs.com/worldsfair/2007/03/things_that_are_effective_but.php

  14. #14 Dave Johnson
    March 10, 2007

    Careful about the selective quoting regarding extratropical storms. You will also notice that there are further comments regarding this point that I have replicated below.

    [Response:There is a physical basis in terms of the so-called 'baroclinicity', i.e. conditions for instability where disturbances can grow rapidly. But, I believe that the case about mid-latitude storms is more complex, and it's too simple to just look at how the temperature change poleward. A change in evaporation and atmospheric moisture and the vertical temperature profiles may also play a role... Nevertheless, modelling studies (based on regional climate models) so far do not to my knowledge give any clear indication on whether the mid-latitude storm activity will increase (that is, for the Northeastern part of the Atlantic). It is also important to keep in mind the difference between tropical cyclones (most active in late summer) and extra-tropical cyclones (usually most intense during winter), which may be subject to different instability mechanisms. -rasmus]

    [Response: In idealized simulations (cf. the paper by Caballero and Langen in GRL last year) it does appear that storms get weaker in terms of winds when you reduce the temperature gradient -- even if you increase the water vapor content by increasing the overall temperature. The storms can nonetheless become more consequential, since they carry more water. This is an evolving subject, and IPCC never said otherwise. As Rasmus notes, what happens to midlatitude baroclinic storms is a completely separate issue from what happens to tropical storms, which live on latent heat and not horizontal temperature gradients. --raypierre]

    [Response: Surely Lindzen knows that the dynamics involved are considerably more complicated than is suggested by the simplistic argument he puts forth. If it is true, as some studies suggest for example, that El Nino events become more frequent and greater in magnitude due to anthropogenic forcing (this is not yet a settled issue), then, given the established relationship between the El Nino/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the extratropical Pacific/North American atmospheric circulation, we might expect increased baroclinicity and greater storminess over a substantial region of the mid-latitude North Pacific ocean and neighboring western U.S. . Similarly, if as a number of recent studies suggest, anthropogenic climate forcing leads to a greater tendency for the positive phase of the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) [or related "Arctic Oscillation" (AO)] pattern, we would expect increased baroclinicity and storminess over a substantial region of the mid-latitude North Atlantic ocean and neighboring western Europe.. In both cases, what would be predicted is precisely the opposite of what Lindzen’s argument would imply. –mike]

  15. #15 Chris Mooney
    March 10, 2007

    Dave,
    I read all this, I don’t think I was particularly selective…the picture for extratropical cyclones is clearly murkier than for tropical ones, which are expected to intensify. I might have included an allusion to Mike’s comment, which adds in some additional complexities. But I don’t think it detracts from the fundamental point: It is extremely hard to link what happened in Stanley Park to global warming.

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