Did Barack Obama mean for the attention lavished on climate change in his second inaugural address – beginning with the acknowledgement that we “will respond to climate change” because to do otherwise would be to “betray our children” and ending with talk of “care commandeered” and “creeds declared” – to signal that the White House will shortly present a transparent and meaningfully-scaled plan with a mobilization-style timeline for transitioning away from fossil fuels?
Based on the State of the Union address, it would appear the answer is “no.”
Moreover, on the night of the inaugural address, Heather Zichal, Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change, made pretty clear that the Obama Administration’s bar for “not betraying our children” is pretty low. She exclaimed: “We are going to achieve the President’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent [from 2005 levels] by 2020.”
Sure enough, the morning after the inaugural, Press Secretary Jay Carney was there to dispel any notion that the White House understands the scale of global climate disruption, or has a general interest in coherence, saying: “…you don’t pursue action that helps deal with [climate change] just because of the problem itself, but because there are huge opportunities there in alternative energy.”
To be charitable, it’s possible that Carney didn’t mean to suggest that global climate disruption is not sufficient to justify mitigation, merely that “the problem itself” is not the only thing that motivates mitigation.
For whatever reason, Carney also repeated an interesting mantra he had used back in November. He asserted that:
No specific storm or weather event can be tied to climate change…
Shortly after the election, New York Times White House correspondent Mark Landler had asked Barack Obama:
In his endorsement of you, Mayor Bloomberg said he was motivated by the belief that you would do more to confront the threat of climate change than your opponent. Tomorrow you’re going up to New York City, where you’re going to, I assume, see people who are still suffering the effects of Hurricane Sandy, which many people say is further evidence of how a warming globe is changing our weather. What specifically do you plan to do in a second term to tackle the issue of climate change?
Obama responded at length, but here’s the very first sentence of that response:
You know, as you know, Mark, we can’t attribute any particular weather event to climate change.
Variants of the claim “no single weather event can be attributed to climate change” have been made for a long time. Here’s one version from right after Kyoto — COP 3:
…it is impossible to link any individual weather event with climate change…
The mantra seems to date back even farther:
It is impossible to ascribe the drought, or any single weather event, to the global warming trend caused by the greenhouse effect, Schneider said.
That was in 1989. Suppose we try googling: Hansen, testimony, 1988?
[James Hansen and other scientists testifying before the Senate panel today] cautioned that it was not possible to attribute a specific heat wave to the greenhouse effect, given the still limited state of knowledge on the subject.
But since then, the science of extreme event attribution has developed:
In the past it was often stated that it simply was not possible to make an attribution statement about an individual weather or climate event. However, scientific thinking on this issue has moved on and now it is widely accepted that attribution statements about individual weather or climate events are possible, provided proper account is taken of the probabilistic nature of attribution.
▪ We used to say we can’t make attribution statements about single events
▪ We’ve learned a lot since then
▪ We’ve moved on
▪ We can make attribution statements about single events
Nevertheless, the White House used the single-event mantra to justify climate silence:
Q: Can we expect climate change to come up in his speech today, in his prepared remarks?
MR. CARNEY: I would not expect that. He’s focused on the recovery efforts underway in New York in the aftermath of this devastating storm. The President made clear yesterday that we can’t attribute any one single weather event to climate change.
It’s hard to believe the White House didn’t get the BAMS (Stott et al.) memo and hasn’t been keeping up with climate science, although it’s certainly possible. (Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey, for example, hadn’t found any reason to have climate briefings for the last year and a half or so leading up to Sandy.)
Undoubtedly, the virulence and persistence of the single-event mantra have multiple causes, including some cynically political ones. Mysteriously, though, politicians and the media often behave as if the single-event mantra were the single most important thing to say about climate change and extreme events, as if no other message were quite so urgent to convey. Here’s Julia Gillard, speaking in conjunction with explosive forest fires in the extremely extreme Australian heat:
…while you would not put any one event down to climate change … we do know that over time as a result of climate change we are going to see more extreme weather events…
But alongside whatever ideological, activist, industrial, or political propaganda drivers may exist, a simple conflation has perhaps also contributed to the persistence of the meme, a conflation of two very different variants of the single-event mantra.
…no single weather event is proof of climate change…
It’s trivially true that no single weather event is proof of climate change. Jeff Sessions was right when he said:
A forest fire is no proof of global warming. Give me a break.
Schneider made this point back in ’89, too:
Schneider agreed that the link to the global warming is “just circumstantial. It doesn’t prove there’s a greenhouse effect.”
Take note, though, NPR and Jeff Sessions, while proving global warming (not the “greenhouse effect” itself though…) was still an issue for Schneider back in 1989, proving that the world is warming is hardly what’s at stake in extreme-event attribution today. We already know that the world is warming: global warming is unequivocal.
Relatedly, having, presumably, been briefed on the science of event attribution following his post-Sandy use of the mantra, Obama erred on the side of incontrovertible truism in the SOTU:
…no single event makes a trend…
While this version of the mantra is plainly true, the question of its mysterious appeal remains. How does this bland truism make its way into the SOTU and survive all the way to delivery?
Possibly, part of the appeal is the obvious need in some circumstances to remind people that single weather events don’t disprove climate change, either.
To the extent that this trivial variant, Variant 1, is conflated with Variant 2 (see below), the appeal of the former could have rubbed off on the latter.
…it is impossible to attribute any individual event to climate change…
This is presumably (?) the variant that Obama had in mind in his response to Mark Landler.
Go on, do a survey among your friends. How many of them interpreted Obama’s November claim along the lines of Variant 1, along the lines of the SOTU line? Enough, right? These two variants do appear to have been conflated in public discourse.
Frankly, we don’t know what Obama or Carney meant when they used the mantra. While Obama doesn’t typically muddle things as terribly as Sarah Palin (“I’m not one to attribute every activity of man to changes in the climate“), he hasn’t yet given the public any obvious reason to believe he’s got a very good handle on climate concepts (e.g., a McCain/Palin “all of the above, drill, baby drill” approach to fossil fuels is not a coherent response to climate disruption).
▪ The longevity and virulence of the mantra are maybe in part due to conflation of Variant 1 – “doesn’t prove” and “a single event doesn’t make a trend” – and Variant 2 – “can’t be attributed to.”
▪ The “doesn’t prove” variant is true but irrelevant. Global warming is unequivocal. It’s not up for grabs.
▪ The “can’t be attributed to” variant used to be a standard talking point and is still in very wide use, but it is simply no longer valid: there’s a whole scientific subfield devoted to extreme-event attribution:
In recent years the science of event attribution has developed considerably, with a number of studies having been published that quantify the role of human and natural influences on specific weather and climate events.
In one sense, that’s the end of the story. In another, it’s just the beginning. See, with all of the above being said and done, we’ve still got the following to deal with:
…there are often conflicting messages from scientists about whether [extreme weather and climate-related] events can be linked to specific modes of climate variability or to anthropogenic climate change.
In Part II of this series, we’ll dive in a bit deeper. Stay tuned.
*Both the AP and the NPR mentions of the mantra are prefaced by “according to scientists” clauses. The AP’s caveat renders its sentence factually true. Many scientists do still repeat the now inaccurate “can’t be attributed to” variant. NPR’s caveat instead makes their claim very misleading because they end up seeming to suggest that “scientists” are cautioning that we just don’t know if the climate is changing.