As we noted last week, it’s time for the year-end “this time for sure” climate breakdown roundups. And sure enough the New York Times’ “Climate Fwd.” feature joins in with “We mapped a year of extreme weather” during which “Temperatures in the United States last year set more heat and cold records than any other year since 1994”. Wait, cold? So obviously things are kind of oscillating around, a bit anyway, since 1994 was not that long ago. But if the connections are all as strong as the press likes to insist, perhaps they can ponder Eric Worrall’s question, “Can you tell what the previous year’s weather was like, by reading the latest climate science doomsday press releases?” Or, to turn it around: Can you tell us what next year’s disasters will be? Or do you only predict things after they already happened?
We know that whatever extremes occur or fail to occur, they’ll say climate change obviously caused it, this time it’s proof positive, it’s unprecedented and deniers are evil fools who no longer exist and should therefore shut up. But if you ask them, now, what the crise du jour will be in July, wildfires or rainstorms, floods or droughts, heat domes or cold snaps, whether the thing they’re now calling definitive proof will continue to happen for a full other year, they have no idea. And when you ask them the difference between “unprecedented” and “since 1994” they’ll be equally lost.
Actually the Times piece does contain this bit “Quotable: ‘We do not live in a stable climate now,’ said Robert Rohde, the lead scientist at Berkeley Earth. ‘We will expect to see more extremes and more all-time records being set.’” From the cheap seats comes a voice, remarkably similar to our own, saying “We do not live in a stable climate now… nor have we ever”. And then in the same nasal tone: “Does ‘all-time’ mean in the last five million years, or the last 15 years?” Because even the NOAA admits that the planet has been an oven for hundreds of millions of years, and wildly unstable.
Still, heckling has its limits. So we then take a deep breath and ask politely what extremes and records we can expect to see set, and when, and where. Because if some places on Earth have their coldest summer in 20 years, we’re going to suggest that such things matter. And if you have no idea, but are just planning to grab whatever happens and go “Gotcha”, any wildfire in a storm so to speak, we’re going to suggest that they don’t. At least not to an assessment of the climate.
We can also predict that some venerable climate change campfire stories will be told yet again to a new generation. Like “Climate change is helping sink Mexico City” which has been sinking noticeably since at least 1900 and rapidly since 1958. But of course “Scientists predict that climate change will exacerbate these problems” of millions of people drinking water they pump out of the ground in a dry place. And we fearlessly predict that whatever happens, journalists will say scientists predicted it once it is safely in the bag.