The recent wave of extreme heat-waves and drought over much of the U.S. has rekindled the public’s interest in and acceptance of climate change. The inevitable question that always gets asked is “is this caused by climate change” and the resulting answer is never as simple as the yes-no answer people want. Reality, of course, is more complex.
People wanting action on climate change are, understandably, thrilled about the recent change in public perceptions and are quickly trying to figure out how to best make use of this shift. This is to be expected and anyone concerned about climate change should hope that the current extreme weather provides the necessary push needed to get policymakers to (finally!) act on climate change.
But while we might hope that the current heat is enough to push through effective climate legislation, we shouldn’t expect it to. The heat-wave and drought will at some point come to an end and eventually many areas currently experiencing sweltering heat will be hit with a cold spell. It is only a matter of time.
If people’s acceptance of climate change depends mostly on whether or not it has been hot lately then as the temperature inevitably cools their acceptance of climate change will crumble. Polls are much like weather and climate; there are short-term fluctuations over-top of long-term trends. It is a shame many wanting action on climate change fail to see this.
The problem, as I see it, is that despite the fact that there is good evidence that the increase in extreme weather is related to climate change, it is still weather. The heat-wave and drought currently devastating American corn crops is weather not climate (weather being what is happening outside your window right now and climate being that weather averaged over long periods of time). So what everyone is talking about is not a climate disaster but rather a weather disaster.
Weather disasters are obvious, they make great headlines and thus get plenty of media coverage. Conversely climate disasters are not obvious, despite being devastating. They only become apparent after a careful look at data, they generally don’t make great headlines and most reporters probably don’t have a firm grasp on the issues involved. How much coverage was there of Hansen’s recent 3-sigma manuscript? How many reporters even understand what a 3-sigma deviation is?
This is the problem; reports of extreme weather will continue as long as it is hot out but all this talk of this being a new normal only works to send the wrong message to people.
When someone makes the ‘new normal’ claim I suspect many people expect that now this extreme weather will return every summer. That this is what a normal summer will look like from now on. What happens when we get a cool summer? What happens when we experience colder than normal temperatures? Won’t people start asking “what happened to this new normal?” Won’t people’s acceptance of climate change will decline?
More importantly, would those people be wrong? Of course they would be incorrect to lower their acceptance of climate change because of a spate of cooler than normal temperatures, but would they be wrong to ask what happened to the new normal? I am not so sure. Take a look at the climate disaster bell curves above. The new normal (aka the top portion of the bell curve) has only moved slightly to the right; this is the ‘new normal’ and while it makes heat-waves and droughts more likely, it doesn’t make the current extreme weather normal. It is still extreme, making it normal will take a few more decades of increasing GHG emissions.
And thanks to the decades long lag involved in the climate system by the time the current extremes truly becomes the new normal it will to too late to prevent a disturbingly large degree of suffering.
All of this brings me to my point. We cannot rely on extreme weather to build momentum for action on climate change and by over selling the significance of the current extremes we only make more difficult the deeper understanding we need in order to have an intelligent discussion of this complex problem.
We need to forget the short-term fluctuations in polls measuring people’s acceptance to climate change and instead focus on increasing the slow, long-term acceptance of mainstream climate science. Or to put it another way we need to focus on the climate not the weather.