Concerning our failure to appreciate the weather


Mike Keefe’s cartoon is reprinted with permission of the cartoonist.

Twenty years ago I came across a cartoon by Mike Keefe in the Denver Post that captured an attitude I had found all too pervasive among my fellow Americans: the attitude of entitlement and detached disregard for understanding how our global climate system operates.

It inspired me to write an essay describing my understanding of our planet’s climate system, and it was published in the November/December 1995 issue of the Humanist magazine. Rereading it recently, I noticed some minor errors but the basic story remains as accurate today as it was then. Since anniversaries are a good time to reflect on history and how far we’ve come (or not), I wrote a 20-year reflection which the Humanist printed in a recent issue. This is a slightly altered version.

It’s worth recalling where our understanding of climate change was 20 years ago. Though there were fewer media outlets then, they were more objective and for the most part offered straightforward climate-science information. After all, it’s not a tough story to summarize, even if the details get devilishly difficult.

By ’95 we’d learned weather is the product of climate conditions and that Earth’s climate conditions fluctuated. We knew CO2 and other greenhouse gases were a major regulator of such fluctuations.

At the same time we were also being forced to confront the reality that it was our burning of fossil fuels and the machines behind our modern marvels and lavish lifestyles that were belching “gaseous insulation” into our atmosphere.

Back then we were thinking about the Keeling Curve, the mother of all hockey- stick graphs. Consider for a moment that before the industrial revolution our global climate system had its CO2 regulator slowly fluctuating between about 180 ppm (parts per million) and 280 ppm. And I mean slowly, taking around 5,000 years to go from trough to peak (±100 ppm), with profound changes from ice ages to temperate periods.

Around 1850 this gaseous regulator was near the prehistoric peak at ±280 ppm, but by 1995, this greenhouse gas regulator increased 80 clicks, up to 360 ppm. It has taken only 20 years to ratchet up another 40 clicks and bust through 400 ppm, which is setting up the Earth for a very hot future.

This added atmospheric insulation warms our climate system. Simple undeniable physics! This warming then forces the troposphere to hold more moisture.

I believe Keefe’s storm clouds were a reminder of the increasing tempo of “rogue” weather events we had been witnessing. For instance, in the United States we had the great 1980 drought and heat wave that killed thousands; the wild 1982-83 season, with its El Niñodriven storms and floods; an ugly drought in Australia; and some crazy cyclone behavior in the Pacific. 1988 brought another massive and costly drought and heat wave, 1991 saw the Oakland Hills firestorm, and in 1992 Category 5 Hurricane Andrew hit the Atlantic, Category 4 Iniki struck Hawaii, and the Pacific Ocean had its most powerful cyclone season in recorded history. The year ended with the colossal Nor’easter of ’92, a reminder that global weather systems interact with each other and their cumulative energy is capable of extraordinary outbursts.

For the next three years an amazing four extreme weather calamities hit the United States annually.

I like to think Keefe was mocking the studied avoidance in growing numbers of citizens. The science was becoming clearer about our impact on climate, with headlines including phrases such as “wake-up call.” Indeed, we were waking up to the fact that our escalating consumption was the cancer that would continue raising our planet’s temperature. However, this dawning realization created a profound cognitive dissonance.

The stark choice was this: Power down or radically alter our planet’s climate system and the biosphere upon which we all depend. That meant consuming less and in smarter ways. It also meant burning less fossil fuel and making fewer babies.

Republican and libertarian players took advantage of the power of cognitive dissonance and created a network of rightwing think tanks and PR fronts. With hindsight it’s easy to see their long-term, two-pronged approach. First, there was the enlisting and cultivating of certain profit-focused evangelical interests to foster faith-based communities that were hostile towards evidence-based learning and rational constructive discourse. The other depended on orchestrating dirty tricks, creating scandals, and lying about the scientific evidence, along with personal attacks against scientists themselves.

Instead of promoting curiosity and learning, they created an alternate universe of faux science that conformed to their ideology and their political and business objectives. To hell with understanding our one and only Earth. The “merchants of doubt,” to borrow a phrase from Naomi Oreskes, became masters of deception and spin.

For instance, after a record-smashing hot 1998, global surface temperatures plateaued and didn’t rise as fast as some expected. By 2006 the spin-masters started crying “no global warming!” with such insistence that they even got the scientific community all atwitter about an imaginary “global warming hiatus.”

It seemed everyone forgot the basics: It’s our planet’s atmospheric insulation doing the heavy lifting on this global warming thing.

The troposphere (Earth’s lowest layer of atmosphere) is huge and complex; heat is absorbed and moved around in myriad ways, so it’s no surprise that scientists don’t have a perfect inventory of where every joule of heat is going. What matters is how atmospheric greenhouse gases are retaining heat, and that process scientists do understand — thoroughly. It doesn’t turn on and off; the “global-warming hiatus” was an illusion from day one.

The question everyone should have been asking was: “Where did the surface heat go?” The answer turns out to be a combination of oceans and difficulties in deducing the “average” global surface temperature in the first place.

Another PR ringer is the soothing mantra that held some rational justification in the 1960s and ’70s, but has become increasingly disconnected from reality: “No single storm is proof of global warming.” The success of this bit of tactical misdirection has been astonishing. Even serious scientists glommed onto it. But it ignores the reality that weather is the tool of our climate and climate is dependent on the composition of the atmosphere.

Climate is a heat and moisture distribution engine. Weather is the physical tool that distributes the sun’s heat and hot moisture-laden air masses that our equatorial belt is constantly churning out. It follows that no weather event is independent of that overarching warming of our weather-making engine.

In 2015 Earth experienced its warmest year in recorded history. Extreme and destructive weather events continue breaking records, yet we have business leaders, their politicians, PR masters along with their faithful whose self-interest demands that they ignore everything scientists and observations have to teach us.

Humanity faces a make-or-break challenge: Will we get serious about our impacts upon this finite home of ours? The beat goes on and the runway behind us gets longer. We can continue kidding ourselves but we’ll can’t fool nature.

Peter Miesler writes from Durango, Colo.

From Peter Miesler.