The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

No Answer to the Wrong Question

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This is a re-post of an article originally published on the old Climate Emergency blog. It’s a little out of date by now, but its central arguments are still quite relevant.

My thesis adviser likes to warn students against finding “a great answer to the wrong question.” He means, I think, that scientists should not rely on scientific method alone. Following all the right steps can still get you lost if you set out in the wrong direction to begin with. More generally, there is the danger run by anyone, scientist or otherwise, in missing the point, failing to grasp which aspect of a situation is really the one to watch–like collecting statistics on unwed motherhood, when you are actually concerned about is unprepared motherhood. Or, as many of us have recently done, asking whether the current batch of freakish weather is due to global warming.

Some weeks ago, my husband and I were taking a walk on a warm and lovely night in early December (which is not typically a warm and lovely month in our area), and he said something about global warming. Then he corrected himself, reminding both of us that, as he puts it, “weather is what you wear today, climate is all the clothes you’ve got in your closet.” Put it another way, climate is the tide, and weather is the waves. Asking which waves are due to tidal change is clearly silly; none of them are, all waves are influenced equally by the tide. And yet, it is often an unexpectedly high wave that alerts beachgoers it is time to move the umbrella and blanket.

2011 was a bizarre year, weather-wise, and 2010 wasn’t all that complacent, either. According the PBS Newshour’s December, 28th broadcast, 2011 brought record-breaking floods, heat-waves, and tornadoes to the United States, plus severe snowfall and drought. Typically, each year will have three to four major weather-related disasters. This past year we had twelve, breaking a previous record of eight set only three years earlier.

Unfortunately, according to a New York Times article published on December 12th, climate scientists are unable to provide a definitive answer as to whether the recent extreme weather is linked to climate change. Apparently, a combination of general economic woe and specific political hostility severely limits the research currently being done on climate change.

Political resistance to climate research is deplorable. Equating presidential interest in climate change with the creation of propaganda, as House Republicans have done (again, according to the Times article), not only insults the integrity of climate scientists, it also implies indifference to the long-term welfare of the American people. But “was 2011’s serious weather related to global warming” is the wrong question, and I suspect it is not actually the question climate scientists are interested in getting an answer for.

More probably, they want to know if 2011 was really unusual, weather-wise. It seemed unusual, but science was invented because what seems to be true often isn’t. An “unprecedented year of disaster” could be caused by a bored news media industry, biding time between election cycles. Less cynically, one might wonder if a large U.S. population simply makes it more likely that someone will be on hand when bad weather happens. Determining whether weather weirdness is really underway requires comparing equivalent data sets from multiple years and comparing the difference to what would be expected by chance. “Is the weather that seems unusual, actually unusual” is a good question.

“Is the weather we are getting consistent with our theories” is another question. Climate change theory predicts more extreme weather events, so if the weather were different than the current degree of warming suggests, maybe the theory would need to be reworked. Another good question!

Climate does not cause weather any more than the tides cause wind-driven waves (that tidal bores are also called waves is an unfortunate weakness of the metaphor). Neither is tide or climate irrelevant, as any beachgoer looking to keep a beach blanket dry knows. Climate is the local median from which the waves of weather depart; a higher median equals a higher wave, given waves of the same size.

But even though a year of weird weather may make a changing climate more obvious (such a year soaks your beach blanket), extreme weather does not embody climate more than mild weather does. “Is this storm climate change” is the wrong question. The right question is “is the climate changing?”

Not understanding the difference between these two questions results in the public hearing “we don’t know,” when the more relevant answer is “yes.”

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Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

One thought on “No Answer to the Wrong Question

  1. Pingback: Clear and Present Heat | The Climate in Emergency

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