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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


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Ideology and Misperception in Energy and Climate

I could write a dissertation on this topic and spend the rest of my life researching and publishing on it.  I will have to settle for a short blog post for now, because my own research is in need of my attention.

People posted a number of tweets and articles on how “Political ideology affects energy-efficiency attitudes and choices“, which is the title of a new PNAS article.  The upshot: ideology trumps the free market.  This isn’t a surprise to me anymore – I’ve studied plenty of cases in the past two years that demonstrate this phenomenon.  In this case, peoples’ purchases of energy-efficient light bulbs were most influenced by what the bulb’s labeling stated.  The study made two stickers available: “Protect the Environment” or blank.  In both cases, the researchers made the same bulb benefits (energy use & cost) available to each potential purchaser.  The only difference was the presence of a blank or pro-environment sticker on the packaging.  With the pro-environmental sticker, conservatives were less likely to purchase the CFL bulb.  Without it, conservatives and liberals were equally likely to purchase the CFL bulb.  That’s not rational, which is a significant assumption of modern economic theory.  The result shows, unsurprisingly, that peoples’ behavior depends on their personal ideology and value system.  This has obvious implications for climate change activists: you have to operate in the value system of your targeted audience if you want them to receive your proposals well.  Beating the same drums harder won’t make conservatives care about climate change.

Climate groups are willfully failing elsewhere.  A new Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication poll demonstrates that increasing numbers of Americans are drawing incorrect conclusions from recent weather events to climate change.  The warmest year on record in the US (2012) was made more severe due to global warming, according to 50% of respondents.  A similar number believe the ongoing US drought is worse due to global warming.  The results go on and on.

Here is the rub: these beliefs have no basis in scientific fact.  2012 US temperatures were largely influenced by natural interannual variability.  It was warmer than 1998 by more than 1°F, which is significant.  But identifying a global warming signal in one year’s temperature data for the US is beyond the current capabilities of science.  We can say more robustly that the 2000s were significantly warmer than the 1990s, which were warmer than the 1980s, etc.  2012’s temperatures were extreme and it had implications that are still being felt by human and ecological systems.  The important point there is this: are existing systems capable of handling today’s weather extremes?  If not, we should do something.

The belief in climate change enhanced drought is also unsupported, as I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.  Initial findings from a NOAA-led team were unable to detect a global warming-related signal in either the onset, magnitude, or extent of the extraordinary 2012 drought.  This isn’t particularly surprising when you consider the last two droughts of similar extent and severity occurred in the 1950s and 1930s – prior to much anthropogenic forcing.  Specifically, they found that “The interpretation is of an event resulting largely from internal atmospheric variability having limited long lead predictability.”  Again, this drought is producing effects, but it isn’t directly attributable to climate change.  The question remains: are existing systems capable of handling these types of extreme events?  If they aren’t, we should do something about them, not draw unscientific causal linkages in an effort to build support for change.

The IPCC’s SREX report (Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation), issued just last year, reinforces this message.  There is a detectable global warming signal in a few measurable parameters such as temperature, water vapor, and sea level change.  But the climate system retains a great deal of natural variability which scientists do not fully understand.  Climate conditions will change in the next 90 years, but the likelihood of those changes varies.  Weather conditions may or may not change.  Their inherent transience makes it difficult to ascribe causal factors behind any changes.  Note further that climate projections of the 2090s are not climate conditions of the 2090s or 2010s.  Identifying likely future changes does not translate to detecting those changes today.

Yale and George Mason should digest their poll results along with the latest guidance from scientific peer-reviewed literature to help guide their communication efforts moving forward.  Given the results of this latest poll, they have their work cut out for them.  Framing, whether it is related to selling CFLs to a diverse public or differentiating between weather and climate, is critically important in climate communication.


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Agricultural and Economic Effects of US Drought

In the wake of the hottest year on record for the contiguous US:

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Figure 1 – NOAA Graph showing year-to-date average US temperatures from 1895-2012.

Plus extensive moderate and worse drought conditions across the US agricultural region heading into early 2013:

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Figure 2 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions as of the 8th of January.

The US Department of Agriculture released estimates for 2013 crops.  The larger picture isn’t pretty, as the link explains.  Due to climatological as well as global market pressures, crop prices have risen leading up to 2013.  We can expect those prices to rise further in 2013, especially if there is limited or nonexistent drought relief.  Consider the following:

Corn prices are 3x what the average price from 1988-2006.

Soybean prices are more than 2X their average price from 1988-2006.

Wheat prices are more than 2X their average price from 1988-2006.

If nothing else, we will likely see a great deal of price volatility in crop prices in 2013.  But any further price increases will pinch most of our bank accounts more so than they already are.  This is another downstream effect of climate change and the lack of a national climate policy.  Moreover, how are farmers supposed to stay afloat if they never take climate change effects (record high temperatures and widespread drought) into account?  As elected officials in D.C. continue to think there is not enough political capital in return for climate change action, crop prices double and triple, impacting every person in the country.  We need to remove the politicization surrounding the issue.


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2012: Hottest Year On Record For United States

It’s official: 2012 was indeed the hottest year in 100+ years of record keeping for the contiguous U.S. (lower 48 states).  The record-breaking heat in March certainly set the table for the record and the heat just kept coming through the summer.  The previous record holder is very noteworthy.  2012 broke 1998’s record by more than 1°F!  Does that sound small?  Let’s put in perspective: that’s the average temperature for thousands of weather stations across a country over 3,000,000 sq. mi. in area for an entire year.  Previously to 2012, temperature records were broken by tenths of a degree or so.  Additionally, 1998 was the year that a high magnitude El Niño occurred.  This El Niño event caused global temperatures to spike to then-record values.  The latest La Niña event, by contrast, wrapped up during 2012.  La Niñas typically keep global temperatures cooler than they otherwise would be.  So this new record is truly astounding!

The official national annual mean temperature: 55.3°F, which was 3.3°F above the 20th century mean value of 52°F.

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Figure 1 – NOAA Graph showing year-to-date average US temperatures from 1895-2012.

This first graph shows that January and February started out warmer than usual (top-5), but it was March that separated 2012 from any other year on record.  The heat of July also caused the year-to-date average temperature to further separate 2012 from other years.  Note the separation between 2012 and the previous five-warmest years on record from March through December.  Note further that four of the six warmest years on record occurred since 1999.  Only 1921 and 1934 made the top-five before 2012 and now 1921 will drop off that list.

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Figure 2 – Contiguous US map showing state-based ranks of 2012 average temperature.

Nineteen states set all-time annual average temperature records.  This makes sense since dozens of individual stations set all-time monthly and annual temperature records.  Another nine states witnessed their 2nd warmest year on record.  Nine more states had top-five warmest years.  Only one state (Washington) wasn’t classified as “Much Above Normal” for the entire year.  The 2012 heat wave was extensive in space and severe in magnitude.

Usually, dryness tends to accompany La Niña events for the western and central US.  This condition was present again in 2012, as the next figure shows.

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Figure 3 – Contiguous US map showing state-based ranks of 2012 average precipitation.

As usual, precipitation patterns were more complex than were temperature patterns.  Record dryness occurred in Nebraska and Wyoming.  Colorado and New Mexico saw bottom-five precipitation years.  Severely dry conditions spread across the Midwest all the way to the mid-Atlantic and Georgia continued to experience dryness.  Washington and Oregon were wetter than normal as a result of the northerly position of the mean jet stream in 2012.  Louisiana and Mississippi saw wetter than normal conditions, largely as a result of Hurricane Isaac.

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Figure 4 – Contiguous US map showing state-based average actual precipitation.

I always find it useful to know the magnitude of measurements as well as how they stack up comparatively.  Figure 4 provides the former while Figure 3 provides the latter.  “Normal” precipitation varies widely across the country and even between neighboring states.  How much precipitation fell to allow NE and WY to record driest years on record?  13.04 and 8.03″, respectively.  Another useful map would be state-based difference from “normal”.

So the brutal heat that most Americans experienced was one for the record books.  As the jet stream remained in a more northerly than usual position, heat across the country dominated.  More heat and fewer storm systems in 2012 meant widespread and severe drought expanded across the country.  That drought tended to reinforce both the temperatures recorded (drying soils meant incoming solar radiation was more easily converted directly to sensible heat) and the lack of precipitation (dry soils required extra moisture to return to normal conditions).

Thankfully, record-setting temperatures didn’t occur all over the globe in 2012 (although Australia is having their own problems now in 2013).  I therefore don’t expect 2012 will be the warmest year on record globally, but a top-10 finish certainly is not out of the question.  Again, this is significant because of the extended La Niña event that ended in mid-2012.  Without the influence of anthropogenic (man-made) climate change, 2012 probably would have been cooler than will be recorded.  The background climate is warming and so La Niñas today are warmer than El Niños of yesterday.

These warming and drying conditions have massive implications for our society.  The drought that afflicted the Midwest in 2012 helped push up commodity prices as crops failed.  If that trend continues into 2013, prices will rise further, which will pinch all of our finances.  Drought in the Southwest and Midwest impacted flows in rivers (Colorado & Mississippi, among others).  The former could mean imposed restrictions in 2013 while the latter could mean reduced river transportation, which puts further pressure on goods sold in the US.  Conditions aren’t the worst recorded yet, but it is imperative that we examine resource management policies.  Are policies robust enough to handle the variability of today’s climate?  If not, they probably aren’t equipped to address future variability or change either.  What systems are critical to today’s society?  If the Southwest remains dry, does agriculture (largest user of CO river water) reduce its use or do urban users?  What sets of values guide these and other decision-making processes?


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Warmest Year on Record Likely For US in 2012

As readers of this blog are likely aware, 2012 was brutally hot across most of the U.S. in the spring and summer.  All-time records at hundreds of stations fell, monthly records were shattered, and seasonal records were similarly set.  These conditions led to speculation that 2012 would be the U.S.’s warmest.

That speculation is likely to be borne out as true.  Even though October was the first month in seventeen in which average contiguous U.S. temperatures were below average instead of above average, the January-October average temperature continued to track well above the previous record-setting year – 1998 – as the following graph demonstrates.

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Figure 1. 2012 observed and projected contiguous U.S. temperature anomalies compared to previous top-5 anomalous years.

The current record holder is, of course, 1998 – the year which saw the strongest El Nino event of the 20th century end.  2012’s anomaly are therefore very important in context: a moderate La Nina event ended in 2012.  La Nina is typically characterized as a cooling event while El Nino is typically characterized as a warming event.  Now, those characterizations are global in nature, so interpreting their effects for the U.S. only gets more complex.  The point of this is the following: as the globe as a whole continues to warm and future El Ninos occur, the U.S. is likely to see warmer years than 2012.

The graph also contains the following information.  November and December would have to be among the ten coldest months on record in order for the 2012 average to dip below 1998’s record.  Well, November has been warmer than average so far through the first couple of weeks.  That trend is forecasted to continue for the next couple of weeks (not record-setting hot, just warmer than the 20th century average).  Therefore, the trend would have to absolutely reverse itself in December in order for 2012 to not set the new record.  Simply put, the chances of that happening are incredibly remote.

I haven’t blogged about it yet, but Hurricane Sandy’s landfall and subsequent widespread destruction might start small-scale conversations regarding the state of our infrastructure in today’s world.  Without even considering the potential future effects of anthropogenic global warming, it is clear to more and more people as weather disasters strike that we are not equipped as a society to adequately handle today’s climate.  Conditions have largely been beneficial to benign throughout the 20th century.  That wasn’t always the case prior to that and it’s likely that it won’t be the case in the future.  We have to have honest conversations about this and make hard decisions about what to build where and what industries our society should be built on.  What aid do we provide to farmers in areas that are drought-prone?  What aid do we provide to homeowners that live in high-risk areas?  What do our building codes and zoning laws allow today and should those same things be allowed in the future?  These are just a small sample of the kind of policy questions we have to ask when we see the above graph and many others like it.

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On another topic, I’m almost done with classes this semester.  I’ll get back to much more frequent posting in another month.

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