Remembering the floods

I wrote about extreme weather events and their connection to global warming two and a half months ago and a small coincidence leads me to revisit the topic. Today has been chosen as the day of remembrance for the disastrous SE Queensland floods a year ago, and a link on RealClimate took me yesterday to a paper by eminent climate scientist James Hansen which touches on something I’ve been thinking about for some  time: the fact that climate change should already be apparent to ordinary people.

First, the floods. Wikipedia has a good overview here with plenty of links to further information and the ABC has put together a terrific gallery of flood photos here. There’s not much point in trying to add to that coverage here. The floods certainly qualify as an ‘extreme weather event’ and were recognised as such in the major global report State of the Climate in 2010 from NOAA and the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. 

Hansen’s paper, Climate Variability and Climate Change: The New Climate Dice (November 2011) (pdf here) begins thus:

The “climate dice” describing the chance of an unusually warm or cool season, relative to the climatology of 1951-1980, have progressively become more “loaded” during the past 30 years, coincident with increased global warming. The most dramatic and important change of the climate dice is the appearance of a new category of extreme climate outliers. …

The greatest barrier to public recognition of human-made climate change is the natural variability of climate. How can a person discern long-term climate change, given the notorious variability of local weather and climate from day to day and year to year?

This question assumes great practical importance, because of the need for the public to appreciate the significance of human-made global warming. Actions to stem emissions of the gases that cause global warming, mainly CO2, are unlikely to approach what is needed until the public perceives that human-made climate change is underway and will have disastrous consequences if effective actions are not taken to short-circuit the climate change.

He goes on to show two kinds of systematic change in climate: the averages have shifted and, at the same time, the odds of extreme events occurring have increased dramatically. This, of course, is the significance of his title: the climate dice have been loaded (biased) by global warming. He presents details of the changes which have already occurred and notes that, “The climate dice are now loaded to a degree that the perceptive person (old enough to remember the climate of 1951-1980) should be able to recognize the existence of climate change.” In particular, people should be noticing that extreme weather is far more common than it ever used to be.

He doesn’t quite ask, “Why don’t they notice?” but the question hovers there, waiting for an answer.

I have been trying to answer it myself since a random conversation a year ago. I was chatting to a youngish, intelligent person with a degree in natural sciences and a job in  GBRMPA, which looks after the Great Barrier Reef. I was quite surprised to find that she had not actually observed the effects of climate change. Then I found that she had spent her first ten years on a Pacific island, her next eight in Sydney, and another eight or so here in Townsville, so she hadn’t actually been anywhere long enough to notice a change in that location.

As I thought about that, I realised that she has lots of company. There are far fewer people who might reasonably be expected to notice climate change than we might at first think. A quick estimate goes like this:

  • Age group really has to be 40+, since anyone under ten in the early 1980s won’t remember the old norms. Change has occurred in the last thirty years, but it is the comparison with the pre-1980 baseline which makes it stand out strongly. That rules out more than 50% of the world’s population and perhaps even more than 50% of the world’s voters.
  • But also, those people have to have been living in the same general area for 40+ years, or have returned to it after some time away, because no-one in California will say, “It wasn’t like this when I was a kid,” if they grew up in Normandy, Queensland or even Virginia. How many Westerners are that stable? 50%?
  • Furthermore, the closer we live to nature, the more likely we are to notice its changes – but more and more of us are urbanised. Europe, Australia and the US are all more than 80% urbanised according to UN stats, while China, India and most of the developing nations are less than 40% urbanised. How many of the 50% of 50% are therefore likely to qualify as “perceptive”? Less than 50% in the West, certainly; perhaps more than 50% in less urbanised countries.
  • That leaves less than 10% of the world’s population in a position to recognise climate change from personal observation. And (unfortunately for the debate) most of those 10% are the rural poor of developing nations, the most frequent victims of climate change not the opinion-makers of industrialised nations.

Of course, Hansen’s statistics show that extreme weather events are going to increase very rapidly in number and severity as global warming continues. More and more of us will notice the effects in our daily lives. But that is not really good news.

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