What is the difference between weather and climate? Meteorologist Paul Douglas used to tell me that weather is like watching CNN and climate is like watching the History Channel. I haven’t heard a better definition.
So, when reporting on global warming over the past 15 years, I have cautioned people to not make judgments on global warming by simply looking out the window of their homes or offices.
“You can’t see climate change,” I would tell them. If you have cool temperatures in your area code, that doesn’t mean the world is cooling. For that matter, a blistering hot day cannot be blamed solely on climate change.
Scientists for 20 years have been very careful about linking any one tornado, or a bout of dry weather, or a heavy rainstorm, to climate change. They shouldn’t be blamed. Barry Bonds was a pretty good home run hitter before he started juicing. He had natural hitting talent, just like the climate has natural variability. But when Bonds started hitting more home runs, and eventually broke the all-time home run record, folks began to ask, “Where is he getting that additional power?” The answer is that he was using steroids, by his own admission.
But what Bonds can’t answer is whether the homer he hit one Tuesday in August was the result of the juice or his natural talent. That’s why climatologists say it is impossible to determine whether global warming and CO2 from fossil fuel caused this tornado, or that flood.
What the scientists can tell you is that we are hitting a lot more home runs than nature can account for.
Just like those folks you may know who memorize every statistic in the game of baseball, climatologists know some weather-stat geeks. We call them insurance companies. Since Minnesota is home to a number of them, and because we are coming through some weather extremes like floods and blistering heat, you might be interested to know that insurance companies are more and more willing to lay the blame for weather-related losses at the feet of climate change. It is apparent to the largest companies that the numbers are going up, just like Barry Bonds' numbers did, and the general conclusion is the atmosphere is being juiced. It is not steroids, of course – it is carbon dioxide. Like Dr. Feelgood who promises bulging muscles with steady injections of hormones, climate scientists have been telling us in peer-reviewed research papers that the more carbon dioxide we add from fossil fuels to the atmosphere, the more floods and heat we are going to be getting. Cause and effect.
Rebuilding after the flooding in the Duluth area is expected to cost $100 million. But in 2011 there were 14 different weather events in the United States that cost more than $1 billion in losses. That is a record. The second-worst year was 2008, which, by the way, was the hottest year since humans began using thermometers. To put that in some perspective, the average annual number of billion-dollar loss events caused by weather between 1980 and 2010 was 3.5.
So, I turn to Munich Re, the largest re-insurance firm in the world. It is an insurance company for insurance companies. When your local agent's firm takes on too much risk in one area, re-insurers step in to spread the loss around. Munich Re put together the graph below. It is the graphic display of what is happening outside the world’s window over the last years. As you can see, things are getting worse, and they are getting more expensive, and people's lives are being harmed.
I’ve included another graph that looks a little like the one from Munich Re. But this is called the Keeling Curve. It is the measurement, taken over the years, at an observatory station. The station is located high above ground pollution on Mauna Loa in Hawaii. The same upward trend is clear, but this measures the rise in the amount of CO2 building in the atmosphere.
The world’s temperatures are following the same upward slope, so perhaps it should be no surprise that the first half of 2012 has been the hottest ever in the United States, federal climate scientists announced this week. Scientists have been telling us for 50 years that if we keep loading the atmosphere with additional CO2 from fossil fuels that we will warm the planet. Warming the planet causes more moisture to evaporate and wind patterns to shift, and the result will be more intense weather events, from flooding in Duluth to drought-fed wildfires in Colorado and Texas, drought in the Horn of Africa and monsoons in Pakistan. The list of victims is too long to print here.
An editorial in this month's New Scientist magazine puts it bluntly, "From killer heatwaves to destructive floods, the effects of global warming are becoming ever more obvious – and we ain't seen nothing yet."
So, was a Tuesday-in-August home run by Bonds the result of steroids? Very likely. Was Duluth’s terrible flooding caused by global warming? The answer is the same.
Back in the day, I told people to stop looking out their windows for evidence of global warming. I’ve changed my mind. Not so suddenly, it is right in front of our noses.
For a dramatic look out the window at this year's extreme climate events, check out this video by Peter Sinclair:
Don Shelby is a veteran Twin Cities journalist and a radio newscaster for BringMeTheNews. He worked for 32 years as anchor, investigative reporter and environmental correspondent for WCCO-TV, and for 10 years as a radio personality for WCCO-AM. He has won numerous professional awards, including two George Foster Peabody awards.