“Ask a stupid question, expect a stupid answer,” as one of my early schoolteachers was fond of saying.
I’m now in no doubt it’s true that an awful lot of confusion and stupidity comes simply from asking the wrong questions. And sadly, in some cases we’re inclined to ask them again and again and again.
So standby, I’m about to become the 11,768th person this week to try and explain the link between climate change and extreme weather. Yes, I too thought this had now been more than adequately explained. But since the same misleading question has been posed over and over in coverage of Hurricane Sandy, it would seem not. You know the question I’m talking about. And to be honest, I don’t expect my 2cents on the matter to make that much difference. The reasons for that will become clear.
Ok then, so “was Hurricane Sandy (or any other extreme weather event for that matter) caused by climate change?”
Well, as George Lakoff has said, we should probably just say YES and be done with it.
Why? First of all, change the climate and you change the conditions under which all weather forms. We can touch in a minute upon the complex interplay between different variables and the specific weather trends we should expect in a warming world. But let’s start from the basic recognition that weather and climate are inherently linked.
Seems obvious? You’d think so. Yet one online poll I saw seemed to have 60% of respondents disputing even this piece of basic logic.
Exactly how today’s anthropogenic changes to our climate are affecting weather, and in particular the intensity of tropical storms, is where it gets more interesting. At risk of oversimplifying, I’ll run through some of the things that a warmer planet means for hurricanes.
Hurricanes get their energy from water vapour. When moist air rising from warm tropical seas meets cooler air higher up, the vapour condenses to form clouds. The latent heat released during condensation (which is, if you like, energy that has been transferred from the warm ocean below as the water first evaporated then condensed) is what powers the storm. It heats the surrounding air, causing it to rise and making way for more moist air to rise underneath, beginning a cycle.
That’s not quite a full explanation but it will do for now. It is enough for us to see that warmer oceans are likely to result in stronger hurricanes.
Secondly, we know that a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture. So in addition to packing stronger winds, in a warmer world a hurricane can produce more rainfall, with greater risk of flooding.
Unrelated to the power of the hurricane itself but very much related to the human cost, are higher sea levels – a consequence both of ice melt and the slight expansion of water as it warms. This means higher storm surges.
When we get into the finer details, there is an almost infinite amount more that can be said. In truth, the full picture is vastly more complex. For example, global warming also affects jet streams. Studying how changes in the speed and pattern of these high-altitude winds affects the strength and path of hurricanes adds another layer of complexity.
However, as Lakoff argues, we should be quite happy answering the question “was Hurricane Sandy caused by climate change?” in the affirmative. Why? Well, as we have established, global warming is a systemic cause of more powerful hurricanes.
The difficulty, of course, is that the questioner is probably not thinking in systemic terms and is fishing in vain for a more linear explanation. Which means no scientist, campaigner or politician for that matter can give an unqualified “yes” to the question “was Hurricane Sandy caused by climate change?” There’s simply a structural asymmetry between the question and reality, which any honest person has to correct before they give their answer.
A number of good analogies have been offered up to try and undo the confusion and to get us thinking in a more systemic way. For example: We can say smoking causes lung cancer. But we cannot say that smoking caused Bill’s lung cancer. Why? Well, it is possible for a non-smoker to develop lung cancer. Just as it is possible for a life-long smoker to never develop lung cancer. But we do know that smoking dramatically increases the probability of a person developing lung cancer. To put it another way, the higher the incidence of smoking in a population, the higher the incidence of lung cancer will be.
We’ve established that as the world warms we are likely to see more intense hurricanes. But asking whether climate change caused Hurricane Sandy is flawed in the same way as asking whether smoking caused Bill’s lung cancer. The right thing would be to ask whether, as the world warms, we should expect hurricanes to be more intense. In other words, was Hurricane Sandy consistent with what climate models are suggesting and consistent with what we should expect in future? Are our current actions increasing the probability of more such disasters?
What inclines us to ask the flawed question in the first place, and seek a linear explanation for the behaviour of a complex system? I think there are at least three possible answers: a) we are dumber than we think; b) we are deliberately trying to mislead; c) there is something about our language structure and worldview itself that inclines us to seek linear explanations.
Most likely, I suspect, it’s a combination of these three and more. The latter is a fascinating subject that I explored in depth in my PhD thesis. But of these three factors, I think it’s the least significant and I’m not going to use it to get us off the hook. And I’m willing to admit that we’re capable of being pretty dumb. More particularly, our education does not always prepare us well for critical analysis and systems thinking. But to be honest, I’m beginning to think that b) has the most to blame. In other words, I believe the questioner is often out to mislead and is fully aware of the difficulty in providing a straight answer. It is thus a good way to propagate doubt and confusion, if that is what one wishes to do.
There will come a time, no doubt, when we experience storms whose probability would have been so low under earlier climactic conditions that we’ll be far more comfortable in saying this event was caused by climate change. But to wait until then before taking more decisive mitigation action would be absurd. Extreme weather affects everyone. But it’s impact are always worse for those who are poor, less able to adapt and, ironically, usually least responsible for the emissions that are driving the changes.
If we would begin with the right questions, we might just waste less time arguing and spend more time fixing the problem.