Last saturday morning (August 11, 2012) dawned bright and fresh in Central Alabama. The summer’s oppressive heat and humidity gave way overnight to relatively cool and dry conditions. The day started with a low in the mid-sixties, and even brightly searing sunshine all day couldn’t push the thermometer to ninety. It was a remarkable weekend–the first breath of cool fresh air since at least May.
Cold fronts don’t usually push far enough south during the summer to offer any relief from the sub-tropical misery that is the American South in the summertime. It is usually late into August or even early September before a cold front will push through and break the heat and humidity, and even then, only for just a few days. Not this year. August 11 is as early as I remember ever having been blessed with such a pleasant change. If the long-term forecast for the area (according to Accuweather) proves reasonably accurate, August will likely be one of the coolest of all the hundred or so available August’s on record, with temperatures below the historical average almost every single day. And this on the heels of a rather ordinarily miserable July. It was hot in July, but not extraordinarily so, and it was dry, but nothing out of the ordinary there, either. Though most of Central Alabama is officially considered to be in a drought, or abnormally dry, by the US Drought Monitor, someone failed to inform the grass growing on my lawn (and I never, ever do anything as foolish as wasting time and money watering it). As my lawnmower would attest (if lawnmowers could talk), the grass is doing fine. Over the last six months, the area is shy about 5 inches of its historical average rainfall (about 30 inches of rain have fallen since January 1, out of a historical average of about 35 inches). If thirty inches of rainfall in six months can be considered a “drought”, then the term has lost all vestiges of its traditional meaning.
But all this must be the fault of global warming, right?
Well, that’s what Eugene Robinson, columnist for the Washington Post, thinks. As he explains in a recent column, it’s finally official–climate change is now responsible for discrete weather events. It therefore must be assumed that global warming is responsible for the brief, but glorious cold front Central Alabama experienced in the first half of August. I must say, if global warming caused it, then I’m all for global warming.
Does Robinson’s claim make any sense? Examining his flawed logic provides the answer, from his column:
WASHINGTON — Excuse me, folks, but the weather is trying to tell us something. Listen carefully, and you can almost hear a parched, raspy voice whispering, “What part of ‘hottest month ever’ do you people not understand?”
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, July was indeed the hottest month in the contiguous United States since record-keeping began more than a century ago. That distinction was previously held by July 1936, which came at the height of the Dust Bowl calamity that devastated the American heartland.
Now then, everyone please pull out a globe–not a flat world map with the US in its center, but a globe–and consider in your minds how much area of the earth is taken up by the contiguous US, keeping in mind that climate and weather don’t have any regard for all the lines that are drawn upon a globe. Only a precursory spin of the globe, and you should very quickly understand how little of the earth comprises the contiguous US, and that’s even if you only look at the Northern Hemisphere. Flip the globe upside down, and you see the vastness of the southern oceans and Antarctica, and how relatively little there is in the way of habitable land masses. Yet every little bit of the non-contiguous US counts (along with, in its proper proportion, the contiguous US), in each hemisphere, in trying to ascertain what is the earth’s climate.
Does it interest Mr. Robinson in the least that the previously hottest month came some three-quarters of a century before this latest one? Even in the contiguous US, it is obviously the case that July had been cooler for a long time after 1936 until this last, record-breaking month (keeping in mind that hundred year-old climatological records are meaningless, except in the minds of global warming acolytes).
The average temperature last month was 77.6 degrees — a full 3.3 degrees warmer than the 20th-century norm for July. This follows the warmest 12-month period ever recorded in the United States, and it continues a long-term trend obvious to all except those who stubbornly close their eyes: Of the 10 hottest years on record, nine have occurred since 2000.
James E. Hansen, who heads NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, summed it up in a piece he wrote for The Washington Post last week: “The future is now. And it is hot.”
Hansen wrote when he testified before Congress in 1988 and painted a “grim picture” of the consequences of climate change, he was actually being too optimistic. His projections of how rapidly temperatures would rise were accurate, he wrote, but he “failed to fully explore how quickly that average rise would drive an increase in extreme weather.”
There is no logical reason higher surface temperatures should necessarily cause increases in “extreme” weather events. Weather events are caused by disparate temperatures and humidity levels between air masses. A warming earth does not necessarily portend great temperature and humidity differentials among air masses. It might mean the temperature and humidity across the globe becomes more uniformly warm, yielding fewer extreme weather events. Hurricanes and tornadoes are basically enormous temperature and humidity equilibration machines. Even with warm enough temperatures, without contrasting cool temperatures, they wouldn’t exist.
But the notion of “extreme weather” is itself suspect. Has anyone offered a scientifically valid definition of “extreme weather’? Is it simply weather that falls out of some ordinary expectation derived from the accumulated data of all a hundred years? Does extreme weather seem more extreme today simply because there are so many people around to witness and be affected by it, and the communications infrastructure allows news of extreme weather, however it’s defined, to be instantaneously known the globe over, no matter where it occurs?
Also, what exactly is the “20th century norm for July”? Is it simply a string of average temperatures? Averages have the rare mathematical potential of reflecting a reality that might never have actually existed. A day with an average temp of 75 might have a high temp of 100 degrees and a low of 50, spending virtually no time at 75. How is 75 thereby “normal” for that day?
Yes, scientists are finally asserting a direct connection between long-term climate trends and short-term weather events. This was always a convenient dodge for climate change deniers. There might be a warming trend over decades or centuries, they would say, but no specific heat wave, hurricane or hailstorm could definitively be attributed to climate change.
“To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change,” Hansen wrote. “The deadly European heat wave of 2003, the fiery Russian heat wave of 2010 and catastrophic droughts in Texas and Oklahoma last year can each be attributed to climate change.”
Hansen went on, “The odds that natural variability created these extremes are minuscule, vanishingly small. To count on those odds would be like quitting your job and playing the lottery every morning to pay the bills.”
The “convenient dodge for climate deniers”, as Robinson puts it, is also a convenient dodge for anthropogenic global warming acolytes. Otherwise, explain a cold front making it to Alabama in early August. Explain the bitterly cold, record-breaking winter in much of Europe last year–in a warming world, Rome experienced a rare snowfall. Explain record snowfall the year before last in North America. If discrete weather is caused by global warming, a lot of it doesn’t much look like what one would expect of a rapidly warming globe, but the global warming acolytes will use precisely the same argument Robinson is here disparaging–that no single weather event can be traced to climatological trends–in defending the validity of global warming. They’ll say that no specific weather even can be attributed to global warming, except, of course, when the weather event happens to be warm and potentially catastrophic.
And for that matter, explain why only nine of ten of the warmest years on record have occurred since 2000, while mankind continues to reliably pump more and more of its nasty carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every single year.
Then the scientist gets involved, making a riotously unscientific claim that there is only a minuscule chance that natural variability caused the undefined extreme weather events. The earth is 4.5 billion years old. The last ice age ended, for reasons of natural variability we haven’t even begun to understand, only about 15,000 years ago. But these so-called extreme events can’t be due to natural variability, even though we only have records of natural variability going back about 100 years? Hansen is worse than an acolyte. He’s a deranged polemicist, having recently gotten himself arrested in some sort of protest in Washington, DC. How can anyone with such brazenly political views be considered capable of objective science?
The other escape hatch for deniers is the question of why the Earth’s atmosphere is warming. Yes, there may be climate change, this argument goes, but we know there have been Ice Ages in the past and other big temperature variations. What we’re witnessing is due to natural processes — perhaps some long-term cycle we are too feeble to comprehend. You can’t prove human activity, specifically the burning of fossil fuels, is to blame.
A Gallup poll last year found this view — essentially, “You can’t pin it on our SUVs” — has been gaining traction in this country, even as it has become discredited elsewhere. Between 2007 and 2010, the percentage of U.S. adults who believed human activity contributed to warming declined from 60 percent to 48 percent.
The concern over belief or not in global warming shows the theological, rather than scientific, foundations for the cause. Human beings need to believe in something. What better thing to worship than the idea that our sinful nature is destroying the Mother Earth that succors life? In global warming theology, the Judeo-Christian doctrine of original sin meets pseudo-science, and Yahweh, whom scientific materialism had very nearly destroyed, can be finally driven to his grave, replaced by a similar creation of our own minds, but one that seems to rely on science for its validity. And why does Robinson only cite surveys of Americans? Check that globe again, and realize that a billion more people than occupy the US occupy China; that almost as many more occupy India, to name only a couple of places where belief or not in global warming has to matter for the theology to gain purchase.
I wrote a column last fall when University of California at Berkeley physicist Richard Muller, one of the leading skeptics on climate change, reversed field and announced his own careful research indicated the atmosphere is, indeed, warming rapidly. Last week, Muller announced in The New York Times: “I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.”
Muller, who heads the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, wrote he and his team tried correlating the observed warming with phenomena such as solar activity and volcanic eruptions. “By far the best match was to the record of atmospheric carbon dioxide,” he wrote.
The amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising because of human activity — the burning of fossil fuels. The more we burn, Muller wrote, the faster the atmosphere will warm.
It is certainly true that the fire of burning fossil fuels creates heat, turning potential energy deep inside the earth into kinetic energy on the surface, so it may well be that surface temperatures might increase as a result. But do we know if the resulting increase is because of carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect, or is it because of all the fires burning on the surface? Every engine in every car in every traffic jam is too hot to touch. Wouldn’t billions of them doing that every day have a tendency to increase surface temperatures? Power plants churning and burning all day do much the same the globe over. Never mind the carbon dioxide, has any scientist ever tried to enumerate the possible affect on surface temperatures from all those burning fires? Surely when Saddam set all of Kuwait’s oil fields ablaze, surface temperatures in Kuwait “globally” warmed a bit.
I’d like to hear President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney talk about the future of the planet. What about you?
The last thing I hope to hear Obama and Romney talk about is the future of the planet. The US is not the planet, and their remit, if elected, is to concern themselves first and foremost with the small portion of the planet comprising the US, ensuring internationally that no other country takes undue advantage of the US. The US is not electing a global savior. Even if, in spite of all the egregiously illogical reasoning behind the global warming catechism, it is actually true that human beings are causing a rise in global surface temperatures by their fossil fuel burning, the answer for the US would not be unilateral. If there is a problem, the US is a very small portion of it, and could not resolve it on its own.
A better problem for Barack and Mitt to resolve is how the US expects to pay for all the promises it has made in the face of truly enormous fiscal and trade deficits (the trade deficits coming mainly from all those fossil fuels needing importation). If the US doesn’t act to resolve its fiscal problems, its inherent economic weakness in depending on vast quantities of imported oil will eventually harmonize with and amplify the severity of its fiscal problems.
There is a strong argument to be made that oil prices in the US do not reflect true economic costs. From the massive military might that must be deployed to keep the sea lanes open for oil’s transit, to the cheap gasoline required to keep sprawling suburbs of McMansions viable, the US stands precariously perched on the precipice of economic calamity because it refuses to monetize the real cost of gasoline and diesel fuel. So there are good reasons, none of which have a lick to do with global warming, why the US might wish to decrease its dependence on foreign oil, or at least price its consumption closer to its actual cost.
Unfortunately, the only ones beating the drum to reduce, if indirectly, dependence on foreign oil, are the global warming alarmists. But global warming is bad science. It’s basic premises are unfalsifiable–no matter which way the weather, or even climate, turns, global warming is the culprit. It is a belief system posing in lab coats. It may very well be that the global warming alarmists have conjectured correctly, and mankind is, by his activity of burning copious amounts of fossil fuel, causing the earth’s climate to warm. Even so, they can’t point to why such a thing would be necessarily deleterious in the long run (mankind didn’t do so well until after the last ice age ended). But anthropogenic global warming might be a useful fantasy if the mythology causes the US to properly cost its consumption of fossil fuels, or maybe even get real about the fiscal promises it has made but can never hope to keep. My guess is that, even if global warming is proved real (as if such a thing were possible), the US fiscal and trade deficits will force a domestic crisis long before the globe, or the US, has warmed enough to matter.
In the meantime, it appears that the worst of this long, hot summer in Central Alabama is over (“long” and “hot” being completely superfluous to a description of Central Alabama summers). It’s not often that August in Central Alabama is tolerable. I’m gonna enjoy it, even if Hansen and Robinson know for sure it’s because of my sinful nature that it’s here to enjoy.