Lookin’ for causality in all the wrong places

Watch out, Climate Change. Tamperin' with mailboxes is a federal o-ffense.

The basic fundamentals of climate change and weather really aren’t all that difficult to grasp. CO2 traps heat, more heat means the atmosphere holds more moisture, and more heat and moisture mean stronger, more intense storms.

So the fact that we’re seeing stronger and more intense storms ought not come as a tremendous surprise. Scientists have been warning us about this for years.

So why is this impact of climate change treated as such a great controversy?

Part of the problem – I think – is that the question is too often framed as whether climate change “caused” a particular weather event. A classic example of this comes from, of all places, the MIT Technology Review:

When you pose the question this way, the answer is always going to be “no one knows.” That creates a false perception that there is more uncertainty among scientists about climate’s role in weather than there actually may be. Scientists are constantly quoted in the media saying “there is no definitive connection between climate change and [insert whatever’s going wall-to-wall on CNN right now].”

Climate change loads the dice, but it doesn’t roll them.

The climate in Minnesota means it’s more likely to snow here than in, say, Seattle, which is actually farther north. Does that mean Minnesota’s climate “causes” snowstorms? The question seems ridiculous when you put it that way.

When talking about tornadoes, it’s even more problematic because scientists don’t fully understand how tornadoes form as in the first place. Seemingly identical conditions can produce a tornado in one instance but not another. So to ask whether a particular tornado was “caused” because the temperature in the atmosphere is slightly higher than it was a few decades ago is even sillier.

That doesn’t mean we should avoid the topic altogether. Consider Joseph Romm’s position:

1. When discussing extreme weather and climate, tornadoes should not be conflated with the other extreme weather events for which the connection is considerably more straightforward and better documented, including deluges, droughts, and heat waves.

2. Just because the tornado-warming link is more tenuous doesn’t mean that the subject of global warming should be avoided entirely when talking about tornadoes.

So, if you’re a journalist, asking a scientist whether climate change “caused” something is simply a bad question. A better question might be, “how likely would this weather event have been if not for global warming?” Or, “as the atmosphere warms, will this sort of thing become more frequent?”

Those types of questions at least reflect an elementary understanding of climate and weather (which is really all I have, as I am not a scientist), and are likely to generate a more lucid response.

Photo by autowitch via Creative Commons

One thought on “Lookin’ for causality in all the wrong places

  1. A related issue here is trying to convey probability-based scientific conclusions (such as the chance for stronger and more storm events) to people who have a non-probabilistic view of causation. Many of the climate change deniers – the sincere ones – seem not to believe in a probabilistic universe. (But I bet many of them implicitly rely on insurance actuaries to determine their premiums!)