More Certain About Uncertainty

More Certain About Uncertainty

I recently attended the “Extreme Weather Events and Climate Change: How do we Address Uncertainty” symposium at Rutgers University where I learned from leading climatologists and social scientists* a few simple concepts that help make the connection between the increased intensity and frequency of storms and global warming. While it may still be too early to attribute individual storms to climate change, there is a lot we are certain about that can be emphasized.

What deserves repetition is that the basic physics of the issue are well established (per the “Radiative Balance Equation”) and we know that the level of greenhouse gases concentrating in the atmosphere is increasing over time and driving an increase in average temperatures around the world.

The increase in average temperatures impacts our weather patterns at the extremes. That’s why global warming is causing not only more extreme heat events but also more extreme cold events, such as Snowmageddon. 

Despite the range of climate shifts being experienced, in every part of the globe, from northern to southern climates, we are having fewer colder nights and more warm nights. This is problematic because we depend on cool nights to moderate day time temperatures.

It can be said that the heat wave in Russia in the summer of 2010 was the worst heat event in human history. While we may be used to seeing some heat waves in our weather patterns, this was absolutely unprecedented and the costs associated with that event, including that of human lives, was high.

While it is true that hurricanes are more likely to occur over warm water and as result, the rise in ocean temperatures as a result of climate change is of particular concern, tying climate change to individual hurricane events is particularly problematic. Hurricanes are complex and less is known about their relationship with climate change than with other storm events.

Climate models continue to evolve and improve over time. More work needs to be done to better determine some of the short term and localized trends, however it is important to note that the goal is not to “predict” climate change but rather lay out different probabilities that consider both impacts on natural systems as well socio-economic systems, such as land use planning.

As one of the panelists mentioned, the best way to deal with uncertainty is to shape the future. Doing this on a practical level means focusing on addressing and overcoming the uncertainties around a particular set of policy choices (such as the Renewable Energy Standards) versus tacking uncertainty with climate change as a whole.

And while there may be some opportunity to play with uncertainty as a reason to act to address global warming (i.e. buying insurance for the future), it is important to consider the downsides of opening up such a topic given fossil fuel interests deliberately use uncertainty arguments to stall action. Taking precaution or preparing for risks in the face of what we are certain about may prove to be a better bet.

Finally, it is important to note that there is more certainty about climate change than around most of the issues we choose to act on as individuals or in our society. Recognizing and acting on what we know is obviously the key and where we have more work to do. Part of this may involve recognizing that regardless of the solidity of the facts, many constituencies are still uncertain about how global warming will impact their lives and what the best courses of action are.

*Panelists included: Gabriel Vecchi, a Research Oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency; Baruch Fischhoff, Howard Heinz University Professor of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University; Joe Witte with George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication and a broadcast meteorologist; and Richard Moss, Senior Staff Scientist with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Joint Global Change Research Institute at the University of Maryland.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Brian Hursey