We are halfway through 2012 and already the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is reporting that the United States set more than 40,000 hot temperature records and fewer than 6,000 cold temperature records. It seems that maybe it is time to consider that climate change is real.
Last winter, Sarah Palin took pictures of her backyard in Alaska and boasted that the extreme snow was some kind of proof that climate change does not exist. The idea that one weather event can be used to dismiss the conclusive and definitive science that proves the existence of climate change is deceptive and manipulative. This is encouraging what I call the fallacy of observation, where a person has a particular experience and uses it to make bad conclusions about the world as a whole.
I think of a friend who smokes and justifies it by pointing out a particular grandfather who died of old age with pink lungs when I think of the fallacy of observation. We all know that regardless of the fate of that one smoking grandfather, as a whole smoking is dangerous. We understand that the entirety of human kind’s collective knowledge regarding tobacco has taught us that it is a deadly and addictive substance, even if the occasional grandpa slips through unscathed.
When facing the complex issue of climate change, we cmust not site an example of a single event that bucks the predicted trend of warming and general weather upheaval in an effort to dismiss the totality of the science offered. For this reason I have been equally leery of trying to use any given weather event as fodder to prove the conclusive existence of climate change. The fact is that the coin flips both ways.
Even though the local weatherman reports more days above 100 degrees last month than ever before, a heat wave in Denver isn’t climate change any more than Palin’s snow was an ice age In both cases we must understand that weather and climate are not interchangeable. They are two different things. Put simply, weather is local and climate is global or hemispheric. Palin's day or two of snow and extreme cold in one region pales in comparison to the fact that thousands of heat records were shattered across the nation this June when 3,215 records for daily maximum heat were set nationwide. As the numbers of houses burned by summer wildfires in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and other western states continues to climb, and the deadly heat keeps settling in towns like St. Louis where the city recently registered 108 degrees fahrenheit, the highest temperature in nearly 60 years we are seeing more than a few freak weather events and instead seeing something else entirely, a shift in climate.
With this understanding of the fallacy of observation, the fact that we must always observe the totality of the data available, and complete respect for the defining characteristics of weather and climate it is time for us to ask ourselves when a series of events is enough to cause us to make generalizations about climate.
Kevin Trenberth, who heads climate research at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research says that now is that time. He claims that patterns in extreme weather like drought, heat waves and wildfires offer proof of real time climate change. He is not the first to begin to say such things, we’ve heard different people voice that Hurricane Katrina or the tornado that wiped out Joplin could be symptoms of climate change taking a deadly grip over our planet before.
I must admit that as I drove 700 miles roundtrip across Wyoming this last weekend and I observed the smoke from all consuming wildfires swallowing wild lands in my most sacred and beloved places I was tempted to blame climate change. I have come to think that we need to carefully consider that it might be time to classify these weather events as not just singular happenings, but symptoms of a change in the known pattern of our global climate.
This is not to say that any given hurricane or tornado or wildfire is a sign of climate change, but instead that the totality of the evidence, the pattern of many hurricanes, tornadoes and fires is a profound piece of evidence in favor of climate change.
The global picture shows that over the entire planet, extreme heat records are being set seven times more often than extreme cold records. Last week, Exxon’s CEO Rex Tillerson admitted that climate change was real and signaled the end of the “climate change is a hoax” hoax as near. When he acknowledged that, “clearly there is going to be an impact” he proved that even oil executives have looked at the totality of the evidence available and decided that this hoax is no hoax. Instead of denying climate change, he shifted to belittling the threat it pose when Tillerson said that industry’s biggest challenge is “taking an illiterate pubic and try to help them understand why we can manage these risks.”
Clearly it is it is time to take stock of the evidence at hand. We have the scientific understanding of how and why our climate will change with exposure to large amounts of greenhouse gasses. We have the data to show that global changes in temperature and weather have been trending toward a warming planet. We also have the people who have the most to profit off of insisting this science is a lie, admitting that it’s not a lie. When I take the totality of these data points into account I find myself unable to deny that perhaps, it is time to admit that climate change is happening right outside my window as the wildfires burn the forests of Colorado and Wyoming till the smoke settles in right here in the streets of Cheyenne and the firefighter’s tents populate the local high school football fields of Laramie.
My father said it best I think, when we discussed the issue of avoiding the fallacy of observation in regards to climate change while shutting our windows against the unbearable heat of the day, when he said, “I’m not saying it’s climate change… I’m just saying that if you like this; you’re gonna love climate change.”
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