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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Winter Weather and Climate Change

The IPCC has taken a few hits in recent weeks, in part due to the fallout arising from the publication of an erroneous estimate of loss of Himalayan glaciers by 2035 within the Working Group II report of the Fourth Assessment Report. The estimate has been attributed to a WWF report which left much to be desired regarding scientific quality and control, and, as a consequence, many are now raising questions regarding the potential pitfalls of including 'grey' literature in IPCC scientific assessments.

Environmental NGOs play an important role as boundary organisations that help to communicate the science of climate change to a the public. However, such communication is inherently biased by organisational agendas, making it difficult to distinguish between situations where science is being used to educated the public from those where it is being used to tell a compelling story (and sometimes the two aren't mutually exclusive).
A case-in-point is a recent report from the National Wildlife Federation, Odd-ball Winter Weather: Global Warming’s Wake-Up Call for the Northern United States. Apparently, the harshness of this year's northern hemisphere winter is just one more example of how climate change is altering our environment with disastrous outcomes. While the report is littered with citations and there may be plausible mechanisms by which a warming global climate can enhance winter extremes, the overall argument is that regardless of what season one considers, any weather extreme is evidence of anthropogenic climate change. Furthermore, climate change is likely to generate counter-intuitive consequences, with the report arguing that ski resorts will experience shorter seasons with less snowfall, yet other areas of the United States will experience higher snowfall totals. Such claims expose both boundary organisations and the scientists whose research they quote to criticisms of bias and alarmism, particularly when potential positives of warmer winters (such as longer growing seasons or reduced winter mortality) are conveniently neglected.

Given how much attention is focused on the challenge of communicating the complexity of climate change, one wonders whether organisations such as the NWF are making the communication effort more difficult than it needs to be. How can the public have confidence in climate science when they are told that the consequence of warmer winters will be less snow except in those regions where snowfall increases? Even if there is a scientific basis for such conclusions, one cannot expect the public (or the media) to comprehend the nuances and such counter-intuitive messages make easy work for climate sceptics.

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