No room for an editor’s note this week. See you in #508 Nygaard
“Quote” of the Week: “Profound Consequences on Science and Society”
This week’s “Quote” of the Week highlights a little-noted consequence of fiscal “austerity” in the U.S. A very short article on page 3 of the May 3rd USA Today was headlined “Report Warns of Weather Satellites’ ‘Rapid Decline’; Drop Hinders Ability to Track Big Storms,” and the lead paragraphs were these:
“Predicting the weather is tricky enough. Now a government-sponsored report warns that the USA’s ability to track tornadoes, forecast hurricanes and study climate change is about to diminish.
“The number and capability of weather satellites circling the planet ‘is beginning a rapid decline,’ and tight budgets have significantly delayed or eliminated missions to replace them, says a National Research Council analysis out Wednesday.
“The number of in-orbit and planned Earth observation missions by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is projected to drop ‘precipitously’ from 23 this year to only six by 2020, the report finds.
“Dennis Hartmann, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington and chairman of the committee, warned that the loss of capacity will have ‘profound consequences on science and society, from weather forecasting to responding to natural hazards.’”
2. Science, The Public, and the Media
On Page 5 of the April 27th NY Times was an article headlined, “Study Indicates a Greater Threat of Extreme Weather.” It had to do with an article in the highly-regarded “Science” Magazine that was published that day, with the fascinating title “Ocean Salinities Reveal Strong Global Water Cycle Intensification During 1950 to 2000.”
The lead paragraph in the Times read like this: “New research suggests that global warming is causing the cycle of evaporation and rainfall over the oceans to intensify more than scientists had expected, an ominous finding that may indicate a higher potential for extreme weather in coming decades.”
“The new paper,” says the Times, “confirms a long-expected pattern for the ocean that also seems to apply over land: areas with a lot of rainfall in today’s climate are expected to become wetter, whereas dry areas are expected to become drier.” (Meteorologists refer to this rather-puzzling phenomenon as the “rich-get-richer mechanism.”)
In the final paragraph of the story, we learn that “In the climate of the future, scientists fear, a large acceleration of the water cycle could feed greater weather extremes. Perhaps the greatest risk from global warming, they say, is that important agricultural areas could dry out, hurting the food supply, as other regions get more torrential rains and floods.”
In the original article, the exact words of the scientists were, “How bad will global warming get? The question has long been cast in terms of how hot the world will get. But perhaps more important to the planet’s inhabitants will be how much rising greenhouse gases crank up the water cycle.” (I love it when scientists use technical terms like “crank up” to refer to scientific phenomena.)
The Times story noted that “The new paper is not the first to find an intensification of the water cycle, nor even the first to calculate that it might be fairly large. But the paper appears to marshal more scientific evidence than any paper to date in support of a high estimate.” Which moved the lead researcher in the study to say that “This provides another piece of independent evidence that we need to start taking the problem of global warming seriously.”
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The non-journalists in the United States already do take it seriously. A survey from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, released on April 26th (the day before the article we’re talking about), shows that a full 69 percent of respondents agreed that “Global warming is affecting the weather in the United States.” The survey specifically states that “A large majority of Americans believe that global warming made several high profile extreme weather events worse.” The “events” mentioned included: The unusually warm winter of December 2011 and January 2012, which 72 percent of respondents thought was made worse by global warming; Record high summer temperatures in the U.S. in 2011 (70 percent); The drought in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 (69 percent); Record snowfall in the U.S. in 2010 and 2011 (61 percent); The Mississippi River floods in the spring of 2011 (63 percent), and; Hurricane Irene (59 percent).
Elsewhere in this issue of the Notes I publish just a tiny sample of statements from representatives of the scientific community, and it’s clear that there is near-unanimous agreement that human-induced global warming is a serious problem and is a factor in recent extreme weather. And we can also see that the general public is aware of the problem, and sees it in much the same way. That’s really remarkable, given the never-ending campaign to deny that there even is such a thing as global warming.
Climate-change denialism is too big a subject to get into at the moment, so I’ll just quote the sociologists Riley Dunlap of Oklahoma State University and Aaron McCright of Michigan State University, who recently published a chapter called “Organized Climate Change Denial” in the 2011 book “The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society.” In it, they write that “Contrarian scientists, fossil-fuel corporations, conservative think tanks and various front groups have assaulted mainstream climate science and scientists for over two decades.” Dunlap and McCright add that “The blows have been struck by a well-funded, highly complex and relatively coordinated denial machine [which] consists of the above actors as well as a bevy of amateur climate bloggers and self-designated experts, public relations firms, astroturf groups, conservative media and pundits, and conservative politicians.”
(If you want to know more about the denial machine, visit the excellent “SourceWatch” website page on “Global Warming Skeptics”, where they explain why even the word “skeptic” is a misnomer)
And there we have it: On one side of the issue, the scientific community and most of the population. On the other side, the “denial machine.” Reporting on all of this is the media, whose job it is to provide fair and balanced reporting on issues of the day. Right? Well…
To find out how the mass media was performing in terms of making the connections between recent extreme weather events and the likely cause of those events, I did a little research.
Using the Lexis/Nexis database of major newspapers, I first looked for articles in the U.S. press with “tornadoes” in the lead over the past six months. I found 2,459 such articles. When I looked for articles with “tornadoes” in the lead that mention “global warming”, however, I found but 22 articles, a dropoff of about 99.1 percent. (Substituting “Climate Change” for “global warming” didn’t change much; that yielded 31 articles.)
When I looked for articles in the U.S. press with “hurricanes” in the lead in the past six months, the Lexis/Nexis database overloaded, telling me simply that there were “More than 3,000.” Adding “global warming” reduced the total to 44, a dropoff (I have to estimate, I chose 3,100) of something like 98.6 percent. (“Climate Change” bumped it up to 82.)
Finally, I looked for articles in the U.S. press with “drought” in the lead in the past six months. Again, we get “More than 3,000,” and adding in “global warming” reduces that vague-but-large number by about 97.1 percent, to 91 articles.
In light of an organized and well-funded campaign of denial, and the almost-total failure of the media to make the clear and obvious connections on this issue, it’s nothing short of amazing that such large majorities of the general public agree with such a large majority of scientists on this subject. When we consider that the media is, for most people, their main source of information about science and/or academia, the amazement becomes a source of hope: If people can stay in touch with reality in the face of a concerted disinformation campaign, abetted by a lazy and compliant media, one might imagine that people can do it with any number of other issues.
Facts and information don’t arise out of thin air, of course. We all have to support the groups and media organizations that are giving us the straight scoop on this stuff. And we have to make it clear to the corporate mass media that it’s fine to give “both sides” on this issue, as long as they point out that one side is almost surely wrong.
3. Climate Change: The Scientific Consensus
I reproduce here a collection of five statements from organizations representing a really huge number of scientists on the subject of climate change. They won’t influence the thinking of any true “deniers,” but they might help you keep your head on straight the next time someone tells you that global warming is “just a theory.” Remember: These are not “environmental” groups, or “activist” groups,” or “political” groups. These are scientists.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science
Back on December 9th of 2006 the AAAS (representing “261 affiliated societies and academies of science”) released a “Statement on Climate Change” that included the following:
“The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society. Accumulating data from across the globe reveal a wide array of effects: rapidly melting glaciers, destabilization of major ice sheets, increases in extreme weather, rising sea level, shifts in species ranges, and more. The pace of change and the evidence of harm have increased markedly over the last five years. The time to control greenhouse gas emissions is now.”
The entire statement is less than a page long. Read it HERE.
The American Chemical Society
The ACS, in a recent (but undated) document called “Public Policy Statement 2012-2013: Climate Change,” endorsed a set of principles regarding global warming from a variety of sources. The document began with the following:
“Careful and comprehensive scientific assessments have clearly demonstrated that the Earth’s climate system is changing in response to growing atmospheric burdens of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and absorbing aerosol particles.” (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007) “Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for—and in many cases is already affecting—a broad range of human and natural systems.” (National Research Council, 2010a) “The potential threats are serious and actions are required to mitigate climate change risks and to adapt to deleterious climate change impacts that probably cannot be avoided.” (National Research Council, 2010b, c)
The ACS has much more to say about climate change. Visit them HERE and search for “climate change.”
The American Meteorological Society
The AMS released a six-page statement on February 1, 2007 that included the following words:
“[T]here is adequate evidence from observations and interpretations of climate simulations to conclude that the atmosphere, ocean, and land surface are warming; that humans have significantly contributed to this change; and that further climate change will continue to have important impacts on human societies, on economies, on ecosystems, and on wildlife through the 21st century and beyond. Focusing on the next 30 years, convergence among emission scenarios and model results suggest strongly that increasing air temperatures will reduce snowpack, shift snowmelt timing, reduce crop production and rangeland fertility, and cause continued melting of the ice caps and sea level rise. Important goals for future work include the need to understand the relation of climate at the state and regional level to the patterns of global climate and to reverse the decline in observational networks that are so critical to accurate climate monitoring and prediction. . . . Prudence dictates extreme care in managing our relationship with the only planet known to be capable of sustaining human life.
“[This statement is considered in force until September 2012 unless superseded by a new statement issued by the AMS Council before this date.]”
On October 21, 2009 a group of scientific leaders sent a letter to U.S. Senators regarding climate change. It began with the following paragraph:
“Dear Senator: As you consider climate change legislation, we, as leaders of scientific organizations, write to state the consensus scientific view. Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science. Moreover, there is strong evidence that ongoing climate change will have broad impacts on society, including the global economy and on the environment. For the United States, climate change impacts include sea level rise for coastal states, greater threats of extreme weather events, and increased risk of regional water scarcity, urban heat waves, western wildfires, and the disturbance of biological systems throughout the country. The severity of climate change impacts is expected to increase substantially in the coming decades.”
The letter concluded by saying, “We in the scientific community offer our assistance to inform your deliberations as you seek to address the impacts of climate change.” It was signed by the Presidents or Executive Directors of:
The American Association for the Advancement of Science; The American Chemical Society; The American Geophysical Union; The American Institute of Biological Sciences; The American Meteorological Society; The American Society of Agronomy; The American Society of Plant Biologists; The American Statistical Association; The Association of Ecosystem Research Centers; The Botanical Society of America; The Crop Science Society of America; The Ecological Society of America; The Natural Science Collections Alliance; The Organization of Biological Field Stations; The Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics; The Society of Systematic Biologists; The Soil Science Society of America, and; The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.
Like the first one, this document is also less than a page long, and can be found HERE.
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