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Why climate experts are using tougher language

Glaciers that crown the Iztaccihuatl volcano in Mexico could disappear by 2015 with scientists pointing to global warming as a chief cause of their demise.
REUTERS/Jose Manuel Alvarez Nieves
Glaciers that crown the Iztaccihuatl volcano in Mexico could disappear by 2015 with scientists pointing to global warming as a chief cause of their demise.

A thermal scientist, a professor of meteorology, a certified genius on the planet’s water and a journalist walk into a bar. The set up cries for a punch line. The reporter should end up the butt of the joke — unless the reporter keeps his mouth shut. Which I did.

It was a bar at 15th and U Street in Washington, D.C. The four of us had gathered after each of us, variously, had attended sessions at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the World Bank. Three of the four at the table were among the leading thinkers in America on global warming. There was Professor Scott Mandia, of SUNY’s Suffolk College, Professor John Abraham at the University of St. Thomas, Peter Gleick, the founder of the Pacific Institute and a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient. And, the guy with his mouth agape was me. I kept thinking, “I should have paid more attention in class.”

The three represented a small portion of the global-warming science community which had gathered to talk about why the message of human-induced global warming and its consequences was being overwhelmed by politics, and what scientists could do to make their findings clearer to the general public.

That would explain why I was at the table. I knew Professors Mandia and Abraham. I had been in San Francisco with them at the American Geophysical Union meeting. It was my first meeting with Dr. Gleick and I wanted someone to snap a picture of us so I could tell folks back home that I was hanging with a genius.

In a nutshell, Mandia knows about weather and climate, Abraham knows about the physics of heat and Gleick knows water. I know when I should keep my mouth shut. I strained a muscle in my neck fighting the urge to put in my two cents, but uncharacteristically, I managed silence and simply listened to the smart guys talk.

Noted scientists
Since that evening, I’ve kept in close contact with the fellas, and with about a hundred other noted scientists working on global warming-climate change research. In that short period there has been a slight, but important, message shift. Instead of merely defending themselves against heavily fossil-fuel funded libertarian and conservative think tank scientists for hire, they are starting to counterpunch. It is not in a scientist’s nature to throw punches, but sometimes that is the only way to get the bullies to get the message.

Scientists are often compelled by their education to tell you more about what isn’t known than what is known. That intellectual and academic honesty allows critics to use the scientists’ own honesty as a brickbat to pummel their work. As an example, for the past 20 years when reporters would call and ask whether this flood, or hurricane or that tornado was due to global warming, the entire scientific community studying the effects of increased CO2 in the atmosphere would say, “No single event can be attributed to global warming.” That is the truth, and climate change skeptics will use that honesty to say, “See, there’s no detectible change.” Now, the climate folks have toughened up that language.

It is an important linguistic shift, and it comes at a time more and more reporters are asking the question, because more and more record-breaking weather events are happening all over the world. In our country, Texas is drying up with one of the worst droughts in its history, massive tornado outbreaks in the South, in Missouri and Minneapolis, and the Mississippi is flooding again.

Peter Gleick says of the Mississippi: “There were multiple one-in-500 year or one-in-100 year flood events within a few years of each other. 1993, 2000, then again in 2008 and now in 2011.”

Stronger language
So now the scientists are making their language stronger. They explain, first, that the heating of the planet causes more evaporation, and more evaporation puts more moisture into the atmosphere, and that moisture has to come back somewhere. And, the crazy thing is, it isn’t evenly dispersed as rain and snow. Sometimes it all comes down in one place, so to speak. Sometimes it snows in Atlanta, and sometimes there is no rain in Texas, and what should have fallen on that state gets moved to the Mississippi. Sometimes the moisture builds and combines with temperature shifts and gangs of tornados appear. More of them, and stronger than one would expect.

So, the national Academy of Sciences starts talking tougher, saying “increases of this magnitude cannot be explained by climate noise alone,” meaning this isn’t natural, and suggests what we are seeing is only going to get worse.

Some people are calling it the “new normal.” We, of course, are locked in on the tornado destruction in our neck of the woods, but this is a global problem. A 2004 study showed that “very dry land areas across the globe have more than doubled in extent since the 1970s.” (Dai et al., 2004)

Another scientist I talk to from time to time is Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. His scientific observations find that drought has increased throughout the 20th century while at the same time other studies show that extreme flooding, elsewhere, has increased over the same period. Weird.

So, scientists are changing the message. It is a subtle change, but important. When reporters like me ask the question, “Was the flood, or the drought or the tornadoes caused by global warming?” The scientists now respond, “No single event can be attributed to global warming, but we told you this was going to happen.”

Every serious climate scientist can point to computer models put together years ago that predicted what has been coined as “weather weirding.”  

My friend Paul Douglas is fond of saying that “weather is like watching CNN, and climate is like watching the history channel.” He means that you can’t look out your window in Minneapolis and make a judgment on global warming. But, if you look out the window long enough and the weirdness continues, you just might see the evidence of climate change.

Some folks in Joplin and El Paso and Minneapolis are starting to believe what the scientists have been predicting for years. They see it out of their windows, if they have any left.

I grab a cab back to my hotel. When I get there I can’t sleep. Two competing thoughts are keeping me awake. One thought is, “We are facing the fight of our lives!”The other thought is one I haven’t had since I was a soldier. It is: “If there is going to be a fight, thank God I’m in uniform with these guys on point.”

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Gregory Lang on 05/31/2011 - 02:15 am.

    Where were all these “experts” when Al Gore brought out his movie “An Inconvenient Truth” and made his post Katrina predictions?

  2. Submitted by Roger Iverson on 05/31/2011 - 08:00 am.

    I used to have a friend I could talk to about stuff like the weather. He as gone so far off the deep end of denial about global warming, that he makes up spread sheets of goofy data about how much MORE ice there is at the poles. Go figure.

  3. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 05/31/2011 - 08:05 am.

    Thanks, Don! Keep laying this all out for us in your own non-hysterical, factual style (and let the trolls who will, no doubt, be here very soon be the hysterical ones).

    My own experiences of “weather weirding” come from central Ottertail county where, over the past 15 years, lake levels have risen and continuously stayed higher than at anytime in the 40 years previous.

    Of course this year, in the Alexandria/Glenwood area, water levels are very high, as well, and the rain just keeps coming,…

    but so far, that’s just a one-year phenomenon.

    Still, the often experienced dewpoints in the 70’s over the past few years throughout southern and central Minnesota would seem to indicate a major change.

    It seems as if the summer precipitation patterns here in central Minnesota may be shifting (or have shifted).

    Then, of course, there’s the Devil’s Lake basin in ND.

  4. Submitted by Howard Salute on 05/31/2011 - 10:44 am.

    ” — unless the reporter keeps his mouth shut. Which I did.”

    Shelby keep his mouth shut???? This has to be fiction!

  5. Submitted by Jon Schumacher on 05/31/2011 - 10:53 am.

    Thanks, Don for keeping this info out there. I wish your former colleagues at WCCO were as good about presenting this side of the issue. Last night they did a “Good Question” piece on why all the tornadoes and ended up interviewing only Mike Fairborne, who is on the record as denying global warming.

    He basically pooh-poohed the suggestion our weird weather was due to global warming. And the segment ended with the reporter saying climate scientists just don’t know for sure why it’s all happening. Your article should be sent over so they can present a more honest picture of that debate. Where are their journalistic standards?

  6. Submitted by Ray Marshall on 05/31/2011 - 11:09 am.

    How did Don Shelby get to be a climate change apostle? That’s all he writes about? I’d rather read scientists on both sides of the issue.

  7. Submitted by Noel Martinson on 05/31/2011 - 11:29 am.

    It’s refreshing to have a discussion of global climate change that isn’t laced with either denialism or some apocalyptic scenario. My understanding is that those are both outliers of what the models generally predict. Let’s just understand what our best estimates are now and plan actions around them. This is a nice step in that direction. Thank you for showing how we can learn about this issue without the polarizing shrillness that so often accompanies it.

  8. Submitted by Carole Bender-Resnick on 05/31/2011 - 11:33 am.

    Finally!! I have been discussing this issue since 1987, when it was predicted what would happen due to climate change. It was also predicted that in the future wars would be fought over water. And the last prediction was that eventually the US would be pushing north into Canada

    I believe the administration gets it, but as far as congress is concerned, it is not happening.

    I really resent meterologists not acknowledging that climate change is not real. Paul Douglas finally got on the right page, but it took him a long time.

    Please keep this issue front and center; next to nukes, it is the most important issue of our time.

  9. Submitted by Lance Groth on 05/31/2011 - 12:23 pm.

    Thanks, Don, for this article. We need more reporting grounded in science rather than politics.

    One thing that drives me crazy is the seeming imperative in news reporting to present “both sides of the story” with equal weight, even if one side is politically driven nonsense. I suppose they think they’re being “objective”, but in fact I think it’s utter laziness on the part of the reporters and journalists. If the scientific community is telling you one thing, and with increasing urgency at that, and the oil industry is telling you something else, it’s not hard to guess which side is biased. For that matter, why don’t the news organizations investigate who is behind the denialist message – i.e., follow the money – and include that in their story?

    Anyway, again, thanks, and keep it up. I fear it is already too late to avoid major damage; when the methane in the arctic tundra and at the bottom of the sea starts to outgas in quantity, we are in for some serious hurt. I see no evidence of the political will needed to do anything serious about climate change – on the part of any nation – but still, we must try.

  10. Submitted by Rich Crose on 05/31/2011 - 12:34 pm.

    Even if climate change is real and you can convince the deniers that human life will cease to exist on this planet, unless you can convince them that it will happen in their life time, nothing will be done.

    Immediate consequences produce an immediate response. Future consequences are ignored until they become immediate.

  11. Submitted by Marcia Brekke on 05/31/2011 - 03:21 pm.

    #9’s comments got me thinking: does part of stations’ imperative to show both sides, no matter how unscientific the climate-deniers claims are, flow from the need of the TV stations to attract not only those who believe in science/global weirding, but those whose viewpoints align more with that of Fox News?

    Might as well stick to facts, because the right-wing is more than likely watching only Fox News, and not “News You Can Use.”

  12. Submitted by David Greene on 05/31/2011 - 04:24 pm.


    Having scientists “on both sides” present their views wouldn’t be a realistic story. It wouldn’t convey the truth about the science around climate change. Unless you had a story that quoted 1000 scientists that say humans are causing an increasing rate of warming and quoted one scientist who disagrees.

    There is scientific consensus about climate change. Consensus is not the same thing as unanimity. In any endeavor you will find those who disagree. That does not mean they should be given equal time. Science is science. It is data, hypothesis, theory and law. It is not political, though some try to make it so.

  13. Submitted by Steve Swamy on 06/03/2011 - 12:09 am.

    I think Don Shelby does a great job at illustrating the divide between scientists and the rest of the public (citizens and policy-makers).

    However, I think that there is a better way to go about increasing public understanding about contentious issues like global warming.

    I lay out an argument for a bridge in the communication of these issues, rather than a deepening of the rift in efforts for progress in my response-piece here:

    Thank you.

  14. Submitted by Tim Larson on 06/03/2011 - 09:40 pm.

    I’m pretty sure Mr. Shelby and the majority of commentators here would consider me an evil, uneducated, “denier.”

    How did that happen?

    I was, like most of you, was convinced that the mild winters I was experiencing were a result of our input into a fragile ecosystem. But when I started looking in to the actual science behind the studies. One of the first lessons I learned in statistics kept coming back to haunt me.

    If the accuracy and repeatability of you response (in this case temperature) is poor, your study is severely, if not fatally, compromised.

    I challenge all of the “believers” to read, with an open mind, It might be too technical for some, but if it is you really don’t have an informed opinion because our climate is a very complex system.

    Also Mr Shelby. Did you ever consider that your dinner guests might be stretching the truth for their own good because they were with a semi-influential media person?

  15. Submitted by Chuck Johnson on 06/05/2011 - 01:01 pm.

    Shame on Don Shelby for lending his support to the Apartheid Regime of Israel.

    How can he pretend to be progressive when he supports oppression and occupation?

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