A Year for the Record Books

Article from greendistrict by Christine MacDonald. Used by permission. Christine retains copyright.


When it comes to climate, 2011 isn’t just going down in the record books for all the freakishly extreme weather. In certain circles, it’ll also be remembered as the year scientists and other experts broke longstanding scientific taboo and started talking about how those individual weather events could be linked to global climate change.

“Extreme weather and associated societal impacts have increased in recent years. With our changing climate, the nation must be prepared for more extreme weather in the future,”National Weather Service director Jack Hayes said in a video posted on the service’s website along with a new report tallying 2011’s record breaking weather disasters. This year, 12 separate weather events cost the country $1 billion or more each to clean up, a significant increase over pasted years, according to the agency, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“In my weather career spanning four decades, I’ve never seen a year like 2011,” Hayes went on to say. “Sure, we’ve had years with extreme flooding, extreme hurricanes, extreme winter snowstorms and even extreme tornado outbreaks. But I can’t remember a year like this in which we experienced record-breaking extremes of nearly every conceivable type of weather.”

Meanwhile this year, climate extremes also unfurled across just about every other continent. Drought induced famine in Africa, dramatic floods in Bangkok, and extreme heat, forest fires and other “weather events” left people dead, damaged or displaced from their homes and livelihoods. The “freak weather” even made Time magazine’s list of the top ten U.S. news stories of 2011.

For years, science’s stock refrain has been that an individual weather event could not prove or disprove climate change. Scientists, traditionally, have taken a historian-like long view; While hotter temperatures and more extreme storms and droughts were consistent, generally speaking, with global warming, natural variations and other factors made them reluctant to connect the dots between individual events and a slow moving global trend.

Such reticence, however, has evaporated this year faster than Texas drinking water. A slew of reports on “climate extremes” published in the last few weeks have sounded alarms about the climate-weather connection, even as international negotiators have dithered over what to do to reign in runaway greenhouse gas emissions fueling climate change.

Late last month, the U.N.’s International Panel on Climate Change issued a special report, its first ever, examining the connections between weather and climate. It concluded that global temperatures and sea levels have almost certainly risen, and increasingly intense droughts and storms are going to exact more and more harrowing tolls on humans, as well as “sectors with closer links to climate,” such as “water, agriculture and food security, forestry, health, and tourism.
The World Meteorological Organization and the International Energy Organization also issued warnings that we are standing at the precipice of irreversible changes. WMO’s provisional status report issued Nov. 29 concluded that 2011 was the 10th warmest year on record and might have been hotter if it hadn’t been for La Nina, a weather event known to cool global temperatures.

“Concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have reached new highs. They are very rapidly approaching levels consistent with a 2-2.4 degree Centigrade rise in average global temperatures which scientists believe could trigger far reaching and irreversible changes in our Earth, biosphere and oceans,” WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud said in a statementthat accompanied the report.

Meanwhile, the International Energy Organization issued perhaps the most dire report of all last month when it warned the world was on track for a  6°C  (11°F) temperature increase. “[F]or every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.”

That’s a prospect that David Roberts railed against as “beyond any reasonable doubt, game over,” in a post in Grist earlier this week. Despite the evidence supporting some serious carpe diem, the news out of Durban suggests we’ll get more of the same procrastination and paralysis  that dominated international climate talks for years.

The U.S. position, which has maintained its opposition to binding emission cuts over the passed few decades no matter if a Democrat or Republican in the White House, is particularly ironic considering the latest report from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communicationthat suggests that climate extremes are moving the U.S. public to believe in climate change in ways that the science has failed to do.

In perhaps the most interesting poll results since the climategate scandal broke two years ago, propelling climate denialism to new heights, the Yale report, published Dec. 7, found that while the percentage of people who understand global warming is happening has remained unchanged since last May, at 63 percent, slightly more people, 65 percent, told the pollsters that global warming is affecting weather in the United States. Belief that human activity is fueling the warming also edged up 3 points to 50 percent of those polled. Perhaps even more significantly, “A majority of Americans (57%) now disagree with the statement, “With the economy in such bad shape, the US can’t afford to reduce global warming” – an 8 point increase in disagreement since May 2011.”

Image: Michael Tobis, CC-BY-2.0, Joplin MO, 2 weeks after the devastating tornado.


  1. Is this where we discuss the Yale report?

    - which, IMO, would have been more useful if it had:
    a) broken down the "I do/don't need more info about global warming" results by the respondent's belief that GW is occurring;
    b)broken down the "I could/couldn't change my mind about global warming" results by the respondents' belief that GW is occurring;
    c) asked respondents what they believe climate scientists think about global warming;
    d) asked about relative efficacy of voluntary personal "footprint" actions vs govt. regulation;
    e) asked about necessity of put-a-price-on-carbon, vs expect-a-breakthrough;
    f) said what % of people reached declined to be surveyed, and what % dropped out partway through.
    (do these reports go through peer review?)

    I wonder if maybe P3 should crowdsource a set of survey questions & analysis of results that'd be useful for moving forward; or maybe offer to be a resource for reviewing proposed Qs.

  2. Drove to Worcester to Southbridge Mass. yesterday. During that drive crossing the 300 yerd wide devastation from a June 2011 tornado, the worst in Mass, during my 23 years in the area. Elsewhere on the drive looking into the forests that without snow or leaves expose the naked destruction in the forests from Hurricane Irene and the Halloween snowstorm and the 2008 ice storm. It is an incredible jumble of downed trees and limbs. This is the new normal in forests of our area now, weather that dismantling our forests. Now it also causes us to lose power for days at a time, but the forest is what really suffers.

  3. 2011 got off to a fast start for flooding. Jeff Masters says "The year 2010 was one the worst years in world history for high-impact floods. But just three weeks into the new year, 2011 has already had an entire year's worth of mega-floods. I'll recap here six remarkable floods that have already occurred this year." And it is still happening: from Capital Climate for December 07: Rainfall Sets Mid-Atlantic Records; Update: Wettest December Day in History, and December 08:Precipitation Records Broken Tennessee to New England.
    Masters: The number of billion dollar disasters in the USA may actually be 14.
    2010 was not a fun year either: Excessive heat, excessive rain. You might view 2011 as simply a continuation of 2010 in terms of bad weather.

    The title of this blog is Planet3.0: Beyond Sustainability. Yep.

    Apropos (I think) of the finally declining scientific reticence mentioned in the article, James says

    Detection and attribution has a lot to answer for in respect of this confusion. D&A essentially addresses the question "could an unforced planet have warmed as much as the observations"? However, this (frequentist) question has only tangential relevance to a (Bayesian) estimate of future warming. IMO, the arguments over whether or not we have "detected" AGW, and at what level of confidence, entirely misses the point. Imagine that someone points a gun in roughly your direction, and pulls the trigger. According to D&A, nothing interesting is going on until the bullet hits you, but at that point it's too late. An intelligent Bayesian would believe that there was a significant probability of serious harm before the bullet arrived - hopefully even before the trigger was pulled.

    Does anyone else see a connection, or it it just me?

  4. Pingback: SkepticGate II: Fizzled assault on science « Millard Fillmore's Bathtub

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.