Hurricane Sandy and the Climate Hens


Hurricane Sandy is one for the record books in a number of senses, and as New York and the world struggle to grapple with its enormity, some discussion has turned to climate change. A topic that has been damningly absent from discussion in the U.S. Presidential election.

It is inevitable that when anyone anywhere tries to talk about climate change in relation to things in the here and now rather than some murky, distant future, a particular group descends to cluck their tongues and admonish everyone that climate change can’t be tied to any individual event (a proposition that is not true, and grows increasingly less defensible as the field of fractional attribution matures). This group includes many who also fall into the camp of those who style themselves as non-partisans or above the “tribal” nature of climate debates. The parallels with Jay Rosen’s larger media critique of the View from Nowherehave been noted by Michael Tobis among others.

Dave Roberts has a thoughtful piece about this phenomenon. He refers to this group as climate “scolds” in contrast to climate hawks (and yes, I do have my own problems with the latter moniker). And while I do think that “scold” captures a lot of the flavor of the group Roberts is describing, I think the hawk vs. “___” setup favors a different term for the group: climate hens.

Image courtesy of Flickr user “Ann Blair”, used under Creative Commons

Climate hens by and large acknowledge the human perturbation of the climate system. But they are very, very hesitant to highlight (or are even downright resistant to) the idea that humans are shaping the present climate in ways that are affecting the public now. This may be because it doesn’t jibe with what they learned about climate years ago. It may be because they view erring on the side of making climate change seem more serious than it is to be as bad or worse than denying that it’s a problem. It may be because they don’t really understand climate science very well- Eric Berger and Roger Pielke Jr., for instance, are two climate hens that have displayed a remarkable ignorance about basic aspects of climate science pertaining to natural variability in a warming world. (Pielke Jr. is also infamous for playing bait and switch by turning conversations about human contribution to extreme events into discussions about an economic signal in normalized disaster losses.) Whatever the reason, climate hens are just plain uncomfortable with people attempting to tie extreme events to our increasing influence on the planet’s climate.

Roberts points out, correctly and convincingly, that the climate hens are clucking about a problem that doesn’t really exist- at least not the one that they’re ostensibly worried about. When the general public sees something like the record US heat, the summer drought, or a hurricane like Sandy, and they start asking about global warming, they don’t really want a belabored lecture on fractional attribution or paleoclimatic precedents that the climate hens think should determine the answer. What the public is looking for is some way to connect this thing- that scientists are telling them is real and a real problem- to their own experiences of the world. That’s what we humans do. Climate hens are, by mistake or by design, frustrating one of the best avenues of facilitating public recognition of climate change as a problem they need to take seriously. Roberts frames it this way:

That’s the key missing ingredient on climate change: not a technical understanding of stochastic modeling, forensic attribution, and degrees of probability, but a visceral, more-than-intellectual sense of what climate change means. Most people simply lack a social and ethical context for it, so they end up jamming it into other, more familiar contexts (“big government,” “environmental problem,” “liberal special interest group”).

A storm like Sandy provides an opportunity for those who understand climate change to help construct that context. It provides a set of experiences — a set of images, sounds, smells, feelings, experiences — that can inscribe climate change with the cultural resonance it lacks. That’s what persuades and motivates people: not the clinical language of science, but experiences and emotions and associations. Of course communicating scientific facts is important too, but it’s not the primary need, nor the standard by which other communications should be judged. What scolds often do is interpret the language of emotion and association through the filter of science. That’s neither helpful nor admirable.

And this perspective has supporters amongst those studying climate communication. Elke Weber (2010) makes this point:

Behavioral research over the past 30 years strongly suggests that attention-catching and emotionally engaging informational interventions may be required to engender the public concern necessary for individual or collective action in response to climate change… To the extent that time-delayed consequences of our actions do not attract the attention or generate the concern ex-ante that they would seem to warrant ex-post, behavioral research provides some corrective actions. The concretization of future events and moving them closer in time and space seem to hold promise as interventions that will raise visceral concern.

The science of tropical cyclogenesis in a warming world is undoubtedly complex and uncertain- a point I’ve been making for years. But when the public starts asking questions about climate after an event like Hurricane Sandy, they aren’t looking for navel-gazing about ensembles of modeling runs, wind shear, and overwash sediment coring. They are asking for a way to connect something they keep hearing they are supposed to care about to things they already do. The proper response to such questions is not, as the climate hens would have it, to shut them down and turn them away. And it should go without saying that nor is it a reason to overstate the connections between our increasingly heavy influence on the climate and extreme events like Hurricane Sandy. Rather, the appropriate response is to treat the questions for what they are: an invitation to talk about climate change in a way that is meaningful to a curious but decidedly lay public. Climate change means sea levels rising, it means storm surge increases, it means heavier precipitation events (Schaeffer et al., 2012; Sriver et al., 2012; Shepard et al., 2012; Min et al., 2011). If Hurricane Sandy makes these threats more concrete, if it moves them closer in time and space, if- in Roberts’ words- it provides “a set of images, sounds, smells, feelings, experiences”, we should absolutely be talking about it. And perhaps something good will come of this disaster. Clucking from the climate hens be damned.

References

  • Min, S.-K., X. Zhang, F. W. Zwiers, and G. C. Hegerl (2011), Human contribution to more-intense precipitation extremes, Nature470(7334), 378–381, doi:10.1038/nature09763.
  • Schaeffer, M., W. Hare, S. Rahmstorf, and M. Vermeer (2012), Long-term sea-level rise implied by 1.5 °C and 2 °C warming levels, Nature Climate Change, doi:10.1038/nclimate1584.
  • Shepard, C., V. Agostini, B. Gilmer, T. Allen, J. Stone, W. Brooks, and M. Beck (2012), Assessing future risk: quantifying the effects of sea level rise on storm surge risk for the southern shores of Long Island, New York,Natural Hazards60(2), 727–745, doi:10.1007/s11069-011-0046-8.
  • Sriver, R., N. Urban, R. Olson, and K. Keller (2012), Toward a physically plausible upper bound of sea-level rise projections, Climatic Change, 1–10, doi:10.1007/s10584-012-0610-6.
  • Weber, E. U. (2010), What shapes perceptions of climate change?, Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change1(3), 332–342, doi:10.1002/wcc.41.

 


[ Reposted from The Way Things Break with permission. Copyright is retained by the author whoever he or she might be. (Pretty much all I really know about that is an explicit denial from ThingsBreak that he or she is Jane Lubchenko.)

I suggest that referring to the guilty parties as "clucks" or "cluckers" may also have some advantages.  -mt ]

 

Comments:

  1. I'm not sure I calling people chicken is a good idea. Sounds quite predatorial. Perhaps the hawk in you makes you do it.

    Recalling that the bald eagle might not be the noblest of symbols when looking at it from its eating habits, I searched for those of the hawks on the Wiki and stumbled upon this discovery:

    How smart is your parakeet or that crow in the back yard? Ask Dr. Louis Lefebvre, inventor of the world's only comprehensive avian IQ index. His intelligence index is not only separating the featherweights from the big bird brains, it's also providing clues about why some birds make great immigrants, as well as insight into the parallel evolution of primate and bird brains.

    [...]

    The IQ index draws its strength from the world's legions of avid bird watchers. Professional and amateur birders alike report unusual sightings to refereed ornithology journals, such as the Wilson Bulletin in the U.S. and British Birds. These observations are published as "short notes." Dr. Lefebvre's innovation index uses short notes from 1930 to the present as the basis for counting the number of innovative feeding behaviours observed in the wild for particular groups of birds.

    These bird-brained feeding feats are definitely clever. One of the most famous is the 1949 report of tits in England who learned to open milk bottles left on the stoop. Or there's the brown skua, an Antarctic bird that parasitizes nursing mother seals by angling in on drops of breast milk. One of Dr. Lefebvre's favourites is the report from a front-line soldier cum bird watcher during the Rhodesian war of liberation. The soldier reported observing vultures who'd learned to wait beside mine fields for an unsuspecting gazelle to get blown into a meal.

    Dr. Lefebvre says that the IQ index meticulously avoids the factor that gets feathers ruffled with human IQ tests: cultural bias. The index statistically takes into account differences in the number of observations for commonly seen birds, such as crows, and rare isolated sightings. Even then, he says, there's a clear hierarchy for bird innovation ability. The crow and falcon families are at the top of the class, followed by hawks, woodpeckers and herons.

    http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-02/nsae-bit021605.php

    It will be interesting to see how far this research from a fellow Montrealer could be stretched as a metaphor. In any case, it does get at the basis of what is being conveyed: "hens are silly".

    The survival of the hens does seem to contradict a bit Lefebvre's conclusions about the relationship between intelligence and evolution.

    • Willard, I have my own problems with the Climate Hawk moniker, as I mentioned above. I thought that the "hen" appellation complemented the Hawk formulation more aptly than "scold". I also do think there is a bit of a mother hen attitude among the people trying to police the discourse about climate change and extremes...

      • thingsbreak,

        Fair enough, and good enough for me.

        I believe the opposition is more usually expressed with "hawks" and "doves":

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_Hawk

        Sticking to an accepted terminology might be more prudent. Besides, it still carry the motherly traits, but with the bonus of connoting all the appanage of the liberal attitude.

        Also, I believe that being a dove does not entail scolding. It's just a correlation, which arguably be related with the motherly traits. There are other correlated rhetorical patterns: using a "law" as a Bandwagon, artfully dodging about any question that does not help selling books, appealing to futurological arguments, etc.

        That does not mean I'm sold to the "scold" word. For the moment, I'll stick with my usual "honestly brokering". I don't have anyone in mind when I say this, of course.

        PS: I enjoyed your research and your calmness on the DDT issue at Keith's, btw.

  2. thingsbreak, how would your approach work in practice? If someone asked you whether Sandy was caused by climate change, how would your answer differ from that of a climate hen/scold? I don't really understand your article (or I hope I don't: you seem to spend most of it advocating what looks very like fibbing) but you do say that you shouldn't 'overstate the connections between our increasingly heavy influence on the climate and extreme events like Hurricane Sandy', which is what climate hens/scolds believe, so where's the difference? My best guess is that you would avoid answering the question and instead talk about how Sandy is a glimpse of the future.

    • "how would your approach work in practice? If someone asked you whether Sandy was caused by climate change, how would your answer differ from that of a climate hen/scold?"

      I would tell them that Hurricane Sandy shows us what climate change will look like in terms of impacts, irrespective of what influence it had on the storm's steering pattern or cyclogenesis. The point is not that people should fib and pretend that Sandy was 100% attributable to greenhouse gas emissions, it's that they shouldn't also shut people down by dismissing the connection on grounds that the average person isn't really all that interested in to begin with.

      People want to concretize global warming. The heavy precipitation, higher sea level, and storm surge that Sandy brought with it can allow people to understand future impacts that we are going to see in a warming world.

  3. Nobody wants to be called a climate crow.

    Around here ravens are thought to be much more intelligent than the common crow.

    Climate raven?

  4. Pielke Jr. is a good example of a 'climate hen.' He's done quite a bit of clucking about connecting Sandy and AGW, including in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, which I've got a blog post about on SkS this week.

  5. Pingback: Another Week of GW News, November 4, 2012 – A Few Things Ill Considered


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