The headlines were bracing: “Extreme cold grips snowy Northeast” and “Mercury in single digits from Atlanta to Boston,” to name just a couple. The recent freeze that gripped a good portion of the county propelled another new term into our cultural vocabulary — the polar vortex — and had the chattering class’ teeth chattering from cold rather than habit.
The news reports were stunning. Extreme cold extended all the way from Maine to Florida, and at one point every one of the 50 states recorded a temperature below freezing. People died, flights (more than 10,000) were canceled, trains stopped moving, cars skidded and crashed, schools and day care centers closed, workers were told to stay home, everyone was told “don’t leave your home unless you absolutely have to,” hundreds of thousands of homes lost power, pipes burst in the Deep South, and several Geraldo-type newscasters suffered burns while throwing boiling water into the air to show viewers it would instantly turn to snow.
Empirically, it was an epic event, a cold that extended over a swath of territory so wide, with low temperature records falling faster across much of the country, that one would expect discussion in the public square about climate change.
So what were the responses from the scientists, the deniers and the skeptics?
The scientists continued (when asked) to make a distinction between weather and climate, and repeated that, although the number of weird and extreme weather events around the globe appears to be increasing, they are still not comfortable drawing a straight-line cause-and-effect relationship between any one weather event and climate change. They continue to be suspicious, but want people to recognize the difference between “weather” and “climate.”
The global climate, they say, is warming, and they would expect this warming to affect the atmosphere and weather. Cautious as they are, they continue to be uncomfortable ascribing any particular weather event to climate change.
What about the response of the “climate deniers”? Many appear to have been affected by the cold and show classic symptoms of “brain freeze.” Despite years and years of public education on this issue, you still hear people say, “This cold spell totally proves that global warming is a hoax.” There appears to be little reticence from this crowd to make conclusions about climate based on weather events.
What do we hear from the “climate skeptics”? This is interesting. At least one wing of the skeptics community appears to be changing its approach. I listened to Newt Gingrich and an expert from the Heritage Foundation (self-described as “America’s premier think tank”) debate climate change with advocates of actions and policies to reduce carbon emissions.
The argument from these skeptics was, to paraphrase, “Everyone agrees the climate is warming and humans are the cause. But data says global temperature won’t rise as much as previously claimed, so there’s no need to panic and tax carbon or spend billions of dollars on reducing emissions from coal plants or automobiles.
“Climate change is manageable, and instead of treating this as a planet-threatening emergency, we should all calm down and focus on making minor alterations and adaptations.”
It seemed to me to be a complete shift in strategy and one the folks they were debating weren’t really ready for; they still wanted to pound the skeptics for flouting the scientific consensus. Still, if this is a shift, the back-pedaling retreat from complete denial should make some policy options more attainable.
I’m also interested in how fans of Kim Stanley Robinson, our local hero/author, are responding. He finished a “groundbreaking trilogy of eco-thrillers” in 2007 which, in addition to the character plot lines, revolved around “the real-life ramifications of climate change.” I read this trilogy, all 1,593 pages of the paperback editions, and was impressed with how seriously he approached the science.
Although I don’t recall if he used the term “polar vortex” (though Google responds with quite a few hits if one enters “Kim Stanley Robinson polar vortex”) the book’s focus is on the melting of the Arctic ice and Greenland ice sheets and the ensuing atmospheric changes that bring blasts of frigid air (50 degrees below) south to the United States.
Consider the prescience of the Los Angeles Times review printed on the back of the book: “In a world where time and natural resources are rapidly running out, where surveillance is almost total and freedom nearly nonexistent, the forecast looks dark, For, as the last — and most terrible — of natural disasters looms on the horizon, it will take a miracle to stop the clock … the kind only human courage and unimaginable sacrifice can bring about.”
The thing about being right, about looking at the science with a critical eye and making whatever judgment the facts point you to, is that there will be no satisfaction in saying “I told you so” if the predictions of the scientists turn out to be closer to the mark than those of the deniers or the skeptics (even the revisionist skeptics).
— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis; this column is published on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org