18 April 2012

Who Cares What the Science Says?

The latest NYT story on extremes and climate change celebrates the fact that many Americans fail to understand how human-caused climate change may be related to recent extreme events. Today's NYT reports a new poll that indicates that a large portion of the public believes that specific, recent events can be attributed to greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet, rather than citing recent research on the topic -- such as the IPCC SREX report -- the NYT decides to cheer about the public misunderstanding and speculate on its possible political usefulness:
Read together, the polls suggest that direct experience of erratic weather may be convincing some people that the problem is no longer just a vague and distant threat.
Ends justify the means -- This reminds me of Dick Cheney's comments about connections between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.  It is the political outcome that matters, no?

The poll reported by the NYT actually reports nothing new, the public has for a long time (decades and centuries, actually, see Stehr and von Storch, PDF) believed that the human impact on weather is much greater than the science shows.

Here is an excerpt from The Climate Fix where I discuss this very issue:
In some respects, the campaign to convince people that climate change is a threat may have been too successful, such that people have come to believe things that the science cannot support. For instance, a 2007 New York Times/CBS Poll found that of the three- quarters of people who believed that weather over the past few years had been stranger than normal, 43 percent attributed that weather to “global warming” and a further 15 percent to “pollution/damage to the environment.” Yet, as most scientists will explain, weather events and even climate patterns over a period of years simply cannot be attributed to greenhouse gas emissions. Detecting changes in climate requires decades of observations. A very cold winter or two does not disprove a decades-long warming trend, and a series of damaging hurricanes is not evidence of a human influence.

Some advocates, including some scientists, seek to have things both ways when they assert that a particular weather event is “consistent with” predictions of human-caused climate change. The snowy period of early 2010 along the U.S. East Ccoast saw those opposed to action suggesting that the record snow and cold cast doubt on the science of human-caused climate change, while at the same time those calling for action explained that the weather was “consistent with” the forecasts from climate models. Both lines of argument were misleading. Any and all weather is “consistent with” predictions from climate models under a human influence on the climate system. Similarly, any and all weather is also “consistent with” failing predictions of long-term climate change. Simply put, weather is not climate. Given the degree of politicization of the climate debate, we should not be surprised that even the weather gets politicized.

By the same token, it should come as no surprise that many in the public hold views about climate science that are way out in front of the scientific consensus on climate change as represented by the reports of the IPCC. The result is that when people learn what the science actually says, there is a risk that they will learn that their views are in fact incompatible with what the science can support, leading to a belief that the science has been overstated in public debate.