Invaluable New York Times science journalist John Tierney ponders how bad weather figures in the rhetoric about man-made global warming. To wit:
You’re in for very bad weather. In 2008, your television will bring you image after frightening image of natural havoc linked to global warming. You will be told that such bizarre weather must be a sign of dangerous climate change — and that these images are a mere preview of what’s in store unless we act quickly to cool the planet.
Unfortunately, I can’t be more specific. I don’t know if disaster will come by flood or drought, hurricane or blizzard, fire or ice. Nor do I have any idea how much the planet will warm this year or what that means for your local forecast. Long-term climate models cannot explain short-term weather....
But there’s bound to be some weird weather somewhere, and we will react like the sailors in the Book of Jonah. When a storm hit their ship, they didn’t ascribe it to a seasonal weather pattern. They quickly identified the cause (Jonah’s sinfulness) and agreed to an appropriate policy response (throw Jonah overboard).
As Tierney notes, man-made global warming occurs with almost imperceptible slowness which means that it's hard to get the public and politicians concerned about it. This is where "availability entrepreneuers" come to the rhetorical rescue.
Today’s interpreters of the weather are what social scientists call availability entrepreneurs: the activists, journalists and publicity-savvy scientists who selectively monitor the globe looking for newsworthy evidence of a new form of sinfulness, burning fossil fuels.
Tierney notes that 2007 was the least warm year since 2001; while Arctic sea ice declined to the lowest extent ever recorded, Antarctic sea ice reached the highest level ever recorded by satellites; the Atlantic hurricane season was much calmer than predicted earlier and so forth. Availability entrepreneurs dramatize their concerns by always pointing to the dark clouds and ignoring any silver linings. As Tierney notes:
Slow warming doesn’t make for memorable images on television or in people’s minds, so activists, journalists and scientists have looked to hurricanes, wild fires and starving polar bears instead. They have used these images to start an “availability cascade,” a term coined by Timur Kuran, a professor of economics and law at the University of Southern California, and Cass R. Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago.
The availability cascade is a self-perpetuating process: the more attention a danger gets, the more worried people become, leading to more news coverage and more fear. Once the images of Sept. 11 made terrorism seem a major threat, the press and the police lavished attention on potential new attacks and supposed plots. After Three Mile Island and “The China Syndrome,” minor malfunctions at nuclear power plants suddenly became newsworthy.
“Many people concerned about climate change,” Dr. Sunstein says, “want to create an availability cascade by fixing an incident in people’s minds. Hurricane Katrina is just an early example; there will be others. I don’t doubt that climate change is real and that it presents a serious threat, but there’s a danger that any ‘consensus’ on particular events or specific findings is, in part, a cascade.”
Once a cascade is under way, it becomes tough to sort out risks because experts become reluctant to dispute the popular wisdom, and are ignored if they do. Now that the melting Arctic has become the symbol of global warming, there’s not much interest in hearing other explanations of why the ice is melting — or why the globe’s other pole isn’t melting, too.
Whole Tierney article here.
Tierney also provocatively asks at TierneyLab, "Are There Any Good Weather Omens?" In other words what kind of weather events would count as being "inconsistent" with the man-made global warming hypothesis? I think that TierneyLab commenter Martin Richard lists some pretty good ones:
Glaciers advancing. Greenland not losing ice. A stretch of years without record numbers of high temperature records broken. Arctic sea ice returns. Tundra re-freeezes. In the Willamette Valley, pinot noir becomes as problematic as once it was.
Link to TierneyLab here.