May 20, 2014

Climate Change: Counting on Catastrophe

I’ve always argued that it wouldn’t matter if there was unanimity on a theory of climate change – no action would be taken until change occurred in the environment. Enough tangible evidence apparent to our senses, enough data consistent with the theory to justify policy shifts.  And even then, action would be limited until a threat was apparent sufficient to justify the political and budgetary costs incurred.  Brutally put: we would need an Era of Catastrophe.

Well, guess what.

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From the New York Times: How El Niño Might Alter the Political Climate – Nate Cohn.

Models indicate a 75 percent chance of El Niño this fall, which could bring devastating droughts to Australia or heavy rains to the southern United States. … It could even inaugurate a new era of more rapid warming, offering vindication to maligned climate models and re-energizing climate activists who have struggled to break through in a polarized political environment. …

Most climate scientists argue that the climate models never predicted steady, uninterrupted warming. Annual global temperatures always rise and fall on either side of the longer-term average, in much the same way that the stocks rise and fall from day to day, even during a strong market. They believe, based on computer simulations of hiatus periods and measurements from new floating sensors, they can account for the “missing” heat, much of which they believe is deep in the ocean, more than 700 meters below the water’s surface.

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Slowdown

Global atmospheric temperature increases haven’t been as rapid over the last decade. But 1998 was the strongest El Niño event on record, causing a spike in temperatures.

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Nonetheless, the hiatus helped climate-change skeptics earn mainstream adherents last year, as global temperatures hung perilously close to falling beneath even the lowest model projections. “Apocalypse perhaps a little later,” as The Economist put it. …

The shifts between El Niño and La Niña offer an elegant explanation for at least some or perhaps most of the slowdown in atmospheric warming. The hiatus is said to have begun in 1998, just after the historic El Niño of 1997 and early 1998. La Niña has often prevailed since then, cooling the atmosphere.

The return of El Niño is likely to increase global temperatures. Mr. Trenberth believes it is “reasonable” to expect that 2015 will be the warmest year on record if this fall’s El Niño event is strong and long enough. …

But El Niño has the potential to do more than offer a one-time jolt to climate activists. It could unleash a new wave of warming that could shape the debate for a decade, or longer. In this chain of events, a strong El Niño causes a shift in a longer cycle known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which favors more frequent and intense El Niños during its “warm” or “positive” phase. The oscillation has been “negative” or “cool” since the historic El Niño of 1998.

…  The question is whether this fall’s El Niño “might kick the P.D.O. into a positive phase.” If it does, a result would be faster warming, at least doubling the rate of surface temperature increases.

A sustained period of faster warming won’t convert skeptics into climate change activists. But the accompanying wave of headlines might energize climate change activists and refocus attention on climate change heading into the 2016 presidential election. Those headlines could include landslides in Southern California, or widespread floods across the South. …

Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist, thinks recurring catastrophic events will be necessary to soften the G.O.P.’s position on climate change. Without Republican support, it will be hard for Congress to pass climate legislation.

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