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‘Get Over It’: Climate Change Is Happening

Photographer: Charles Bertram/Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT via Getty Images

Horses grazing on the dry land at a horse farm in western Fayette County in Kentucky, July 6, 2012. Close

Horses grazing on the dry land at a horse farm in western Fayette County in Kentucky, July 6, 2012.

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Photographer: Charles Bertram/Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT via Getty Images

Horses grazing on the dry land at a horse farm in western Fayette County in Kentucky, July 6, 2012.

What is anyone to make of American public figures who even in 2012 dismiss the risks posed by manmade climate change?

After a week of record heat and wildfires, Terry Moran of ABC News posed a question to guests on July 8, on the Sunday political talk show, “This Week With George Stephanopoulos”: Why should climate change be any more controversial than, say, neuroscience or brain surgery? Mort Zuckerman, editor-in-chief of U.S. News & World Report, answered that climate change has much broader applicability than brain surgery and therefore draws a greater crowd of critics. E.J. Dionne, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, expressed incredulity about “why my conservative friends are so resistant in taking out an insurance policy… Because if we go wrong on this, we’re making an awfully big mistake.”

Political commentator George Will answered thusly: “You asked us -- how do we explain the heat? One word: summer. I grew up in central Illinois in a house without air conditioning. What is so unusual about this? Now, come the winter, there will be a cold snap, lots of snow, and the same guys, like E.J., will start lecturing us. There's a difference between the weather and the climate. I agree with that. We're having some hot weather. Get over it.”

Businesses and investors haven’t gotten over it. They’ve left the politics of climate science behind and are repositioning themselves to anticipate changes ahead. Ask any of the 285 investors, representing assets exceeding $20 trillion, who signed the 2011 Global Investor Statement on Climate Change. Ask any of the 3,715 companies who filed voluntary greenhouse gas reports to the Carbon Disclosure Project last year. The free market has assimilated climate change risk more readily than some of the loudest free-market advocates.

There’s no reason to dwell, as others have, on Will’s unsentimental reaction to damages, in life and property, from the recent extreme weather. Sentimentality can cloud fact-finding, analysis and judgment.

It’s the fact-finding that’s of concern. Will has for several years written columns and spoken publicly about climate change in ways that make scientists and science journalists reach for their red pens. Previous Washington Post columns on this topic have met with regular fact-checks and rebuttals from people whose audiences are smaller than those of the Post or “This Week.” For example, Carl Zimmer, award-winning author of numerous books and a distinguished science journalist for the New York Times and Discover magazine, had to continually put down whatever he was working on in 2009 to fact-check Will columns about sea-ice levels.

The “This Week” segment was so short that it might not be worth bringing up at all. But in a presidential election year, it’s worth keeping a close eye on climate science, so that the political parties can have sound, factual premises for policy debates.

Will was right that it is, in fact, summer in the U.S., when the Earth’s axis tilts toward the Sun, exposing the Northern Hemisphere to a warm season. He also pointed out that weather and climate are not homonyms. Scientists tend to define climate as an average of weather over a long period of time, such as 30 years. “Climate is what you expect. Weather is what you get,” the saying goes. That’s where his reliability ended in this segment. (Will didn't respond to multiple email and phone requests for an interview.)

He made three statements that are worth considering in light of recent or widely cited scientific work.

First, he asked what is unusual about the heat wave, a question addressed in part in a lead-in segment. Meteorologist Ginger Zee explained that the U.S. set about 2,000 heat records the first week of July. St. Louis, she reported, saw 10 straight days with temperatures passing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s part of an unusual trend. A 2009 National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) study showed that U.S. heat records outnumbered cold records by a ratio of two to one between 2000 and 2009. It would be about one to one under natural conditions, the scientists said. Andrew Freedman of Climate Central wrote last week about how high the ratio reaches on shorter time frames.

Second, I can relate to Will’s statement about Illinois summers, having grown up there. But if you subtract out personal experience -- of this summer or the summers we knew growing up -- the safest measures are the five major temperature records, maintained by NASA, NOAA, the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, the University of Alabama in Huntsville and Remote Sensing Systems, a private research company. A useful 2011 study in Environmental Research Papers analyzes the five datasets and finds steady temperature increases between 1979, the beginning of the satellite era, and 2010. They also estimate and remove the influence of El Nino/La Nina, volcanic emissions and solar variability, to show the prominence of the human influence in driving higher global temperatures. These efforts, whose data are more accurate than our memories, are unequivocal: global warming is real, and it's happening now. There’s no way to explain it other than human greenhouse gas emissions.

Finally, by complaining about the “lecturing” he gets in winter, Will is brushing off research about how natural and manmade influences work with or against each other in colder months. Winters are warming faster than summers, with the Midwest and northern Great Plains seeing a more than 7 degree Fahrenheit increase in average winter temperatures in the past 30 years (pdf, p 76). A recent article in Oceanography (pdf) by two Cornell University scientists asks if Arctic climate change has "stacked the deck" for more extreme Northern Hemisphere winters.

Overall, global winters are expected to be warmer than in the past. It’s useful to keep in mind that higher probability of warmth doesn’t eliminate the probability of freak winter cold snaps, or of snow falling in Chicago the way I remember.

Climate scientists have made some advances in the last few years studying the relationship between extreme weather events and the influence of manmade warming. Earlier this year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters, the first major review of science at the intersection of how natural variability and human influence lead “to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration, and timing of extreme weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events.”

Peer-reviewed studies have analyzed the human contribution to previous heat waves, including Europe in 2003 and Russia in 2010. On July 10, two days after the “This Week” broadcast, scientists from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.K. Met Office Hadley Centre published a report titled Explaining Extreme Events of 2011 From a Climate Perspective, about the state of research into attributing weather events to human and natural influences. Among the findings in their 28-page report, researchers found that extreme temperature events in Texas, such as last year’s heat wave, are “distinctly more probable than they were 40-50 years ago.”

Natural patterns and variability haven’t gone anywhere. These days, there’s an additional pair of hands on the steering wheel, too.

U.S. policymakers are stuck in a conversational rut that many companies have climbed out of.  To pick just one example among hundreds of corporate efforts, Walt Disney Co., which owns ABC News, publishes a Citizenship report. The company decided to try to “achieve zero net direct greenhouse gas emissions” saying that “Current scientific conclusions indicate that reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are required to avert accelerated climate change.”

It's critical to draw a line between what scientists know about climate change and what we should do about it. George Will's opinions about the latter are welcome in the public policy debate we should be having.

When the topic comes up again, maybe someone can challenge Will, a well-known baseball expert, with an analogy made by the National Center for Atmospheric Research. If you apply to baseball the rigor that naysayers apply to climate change, you might conclude that steroids don’t exist; guys who are built like horses just hit the ball farther.

Get over it.

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