2011-02-09 02:05:54New article for Guardian due in about 15 hours! Feedback, please!
John Cook

john@skepticalscience...
123.211.149.21

The Guardian are doing a series, 10 blogs from 10 countries in 10 days. They asked me to write a post with an Australian emphasis. So I went with an extreme weather post (although I'm getting a bit tired of talking about it). I rustled up an article, it's not particularly inspired but feedback very welcome before I submit it tomorrow:


NOTE: An updated version of this article is posted further down the thread

Australia: climate change’s cautionary tale

Going by the first six weeks, 2011 has not been a good year to be a Queenslander. In the first few weeks, we experienced heavy downpours, culminating in the South-East floods which killed 22. While we were still mopping up the damage, the inevitable TV specials hadn't even aired yet when one of the biggest cyclones in our history hit the north Queensland coast. Cyclone Yasi had grown to a Category 5 by the time it hit landfall. All this and we were barely into February!

So you can understand if Queenslanders are feeling somewhat battered at the moment. But we're not the only part of Australia being afflicted by extreme weather. Flooding has spread across all the south eastern states. To the west, Perth hasn’t got off lightly either, threatened with a cyclone last week and currently suffering from bushfires. Sydney just went through a record breaking heat wave, with temperatures soaring into the mid to high 30s for seven days running. A heat wave of that duration has not been experienced since records began in 1858.

When you scroll down the list of extreme weather events, we’re ticking a lot of boxes. As an Australian, it can be somewhat disconcerting when I read climate bloggers from overseas hold up Australia as a harbinger of what’s to come for their own countries. It's not fun being climate change's cautionary tale.

Okay, so we’ve had a bad start to the year. But if Queensland experiences two 1-in-a-100 year weather events within a few weeks, doesn’t that mean we’re off the hook for the next few centuries? If only! Unfortunately, the odds are changing. An apt metaphor to understand how weather works is to consider the rolling of dice, which can be just as chaotic and unpredictable. Rolling a six is unlikely. But what if you load the dice so the six face is heavier. This increases the chances of rolling a maximum.

Global warming loads the dice. As it gets warmer, more water evaporates and the air can hold more moisture. Over the last 40 years, the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere has risen by 4%. Here in Australia, we measure everything by Sydney Harbours. The amount of extra water vapour in the air due to global warming is equivalent to over 900 Sydney Harbours.

All that extra water vapour increases the chance of an extreme rainfall event. It’s not appropriate to say global warming caused a particular weather event. But it’s equally false to say global warming has no effect on weather. Yes, we’ve had floods and heavy downpours in the past, well before the modern global warming trend. Rolling the dice will occasionally yield a six. But now the odds of heavy downpours and floods are increasing.

In fact, our physical understanding of our climate tells us global warming will cause the water cycle to grow more intense. This means both more heavy downpours and more drought. Wait a minute, scoffs the sceptic. How can global warming cause droughts and floods? Aren’t you just trying to blame everything on climate change? But increased drought and heavy downpours aren’t just predictions from a climate model. They're happening in the real world. In Australia, farmlands that were parched from years of drought were recently wiped out by floods. Over the last 50 years as the world warmed, both drought severity and the number of heavy precipitations events have increased. The results are in from the most comprehensive, sophisticated climate model of all. Nature.

Nature has also spoken on other extreme weather like heat waves. While some regions are suffering record high temperatures, it’s true that other places are experiencing unusually cold temperatures. But the overall picture is clear – we’re experiencing twice as many record highs as record lows. This is what we expect with global warming and this is what we observe.

One might hope that this rash of extreme weather events be a wake up call for an Australian government that has been dragging its feet on climate action. However, the early signs are not encouraging. To pay for flood damage, Prime Minister Gillard cut funding to a number of programs designed to reduce carbon emissions. These include schemes for cleaner cars and a number of boosts for the solar industry. As Greens senator Christina Milne expressed it, cutting climate change programs to fund disaster relief that will only get worse due to climate change is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Another unique if somewhat bleak perspective on this course of action came from a Twitter user who described the government reaction as a new man-made reinforcing climate feedback.

2011-02-09 02:45:48Got my thumb-ey, if needed
Daniel Bailey
Daniel Bailey
yooper49855@hotmail...
97.83.150.102

I like it.  Succinct, to the point.

 

This bit:

"It's not fun being climate change's cautionary tale."

 

Caught my eye as too much alliteration.  Instead, how about:

"It's not fun being climate change's whipping post."

2011-02-09 03:40:20very nice
dana1981
Dana Nuccitelli
dana1981@yahoo...
38.223.231.252

You read my mind again, John.  While reading about the floods I was going to suggest that you also talk about Australia's droughts, and then you did!

I'd suggest mentioning a bit of geography to make it clear that the droughts are happening in different locations than the floods (assuming that's the case).  For instance, mention that Queensland is NE Australia and Murray-Darling basin (which if I recall correctly, is the agricultural area experiencing damaging drought) is SE Australia. 

That's all I've got.  Great job as usual.

2011-02-09 05:37:20
Rob Painting
Rob
paintingskeri@vodafone.co...
118.93.198.21
No wonder the Aussie PM has attracted the moniker "Dullard". Very well written piece. Thumbs up from me. 
2011-02-09 06:16:30
Daniel Bailey
Daniel Bailey
yooper49855@hotmail...
97.83.150.102
Fuggot da thumb
2011-02-09 07:59:39
nealjking

nealjking@gmail...
84.151.52.158

"In fact, our physical understanding of our climate tells us global warming will cause the water cycle to grow more intense. This means both more heavy downpours and more drought. Wait a minute, scoffs the sceptic. How can global warming cause droughts and floods? Aren’t you just trying to blame everything on climate change? But increased drought and heavy downpours aren’t just predictions from a climate model. They're happening in the real world. In Australia, farmlands that were parched from years of drought were recently wiped out by floods. Over the last 50 years as the world warmed, both drought severity and the number of heavy precipitations events have increased. The results are in from the most comprehensive, sophisticated climate model of all. Nature."

A few words to make a plausible consistency between droughts and floods would be useful: some explanation of the water cycle.

2011-02-09 09:17:27
Riccardo

riccardoreitano@tiscali...
93.147.82.71

Good job.

 "our physical understanding of our climate", two "our" in a row.

Try to find inspiration for a good last sentece, it's missing.

2011-02-09 11:36:28
Glenn Tamblyn

glenn@thefoodgallery.com...
124.180.63.180

Agree with Riccardo

Good piece but needs a punchline.

Perhaps, following on from the Twitter comment

'If we don't act strongly to solve Climate Change soon, we might end up spending all our energies on just surviving with it'

2011-02-09 12:32:21Updated post
John Cook

john@skepticalscience...
123.211.149.21

Thanks for all the feedback. Also went through it with Wendy whose initial comment was "you're written better. Were you tired when you wrote this?" So we went through it and cleaned up the dodgy grammar. Here's the updated version which I'll send in a few hours. The main addition is an explanation of how GW causes drought, very simple, is it too simple?


Australia: climate change’s cautionary tale

Going by the first six weeks, 2011 has not been a good year to live in Queensland, Australia. In the first fortnight, we experienced heavy downpours, culminating in the South-East floods which killed 22. While we were still mopping up the damage, one of the biggest cyclones in our history hit the north Queensland coast. Cyclone Yasi had grown to a Category 5 by the time it hit landfall. All this and we were barely into February!

You can understand if Queenslanders are feeling somewhat battered at the moment. But we're not the only part of Australia being afflicted by extreme weather. Flooding has spread to the southern states. To the west, Perth hasn’t gotten off lightly either, threatened with a cyclone last week and currently suffering from bushfires. Sydney just went through a record breaking heat wave, with temperatures soaring into the mid to high 30s for seven days running. A heat wave of that duration has not been experienced since records began in 1858.

When you scroll down the list of extreme weather events, we’re ticking a lot of boxes. As an Australian, it can be somewhat disconcerting when climate bloggers from overseas hold up Australia as a harbinger of what’s to come for their own countries. It's not fun being climate change's cautionary tale.

Okay, so we’ve had a bad start to the year. But if Queensland experiences two 1-in-a-100 year weather events within a few weeks, doesn’t that mean we’re off the hook for the next two centuries? If only! Unfortunately, the odds are changing. An apt metaphor to understand how weather works is to consider the rolling of dice, which can be just as chaotic and unpredictable. What if you load the dice so one face is heavier. This increases the chances of rolling that number.

Global warming loads the dice. As it gets warmer, more water evaporates and the air holds more moisture. Over the last 40 years, the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere has risen by 4%. Lately in Australia, we’ve been measuring everything by Sydney Harbours. Globally, the amount of extra water vapour in the air due to warming is equivalent to over 900 Sydney Harbours.

All that extra water vapour increases the chance of an extreme rainfall event. It’s not appropriate to say global warming causes a particular weather event. But it’s equally false to say global warming has no effect on weather. Yes, we’ve had floods and heavy downpours in the past, well before the modern global warming trend. But now the odds of heavy downpours and floods are increasing.

In fact, our physical understanding of climate tells us global warming will cause the water cycle to grow more intense. This means both more heavy downpours and more intense drought. As temperatures rise, the ground dries out faster, causing droughts to get worse. So we find ourselves swinging from one extreme to another, like an ever deepening rollercoaster ride.

Wait a minute, scoffs the sceptic. How can global warming cause droughts and floods? Aren’t you just trying to blame everything on climate change? But increased drought and heavy downpours aren’t just predictions from a climate model. They're happening in the real world. In Australia, farmlands that were parched from years of drought were recently wiped out by floods. Over the last 50 years as the world warmed, both drought severity and the number of heavy precipitations events have increased. The results are in from the most comprehensive, sophisticated climate model of all – nature.

Nature has also spoken on other extreme weather such as heat waves. While some regions are suffering record high temperatures, it’s true that other places are experiencing unusually cold temperatures. But the overall picture is clear – we’re experiencing twice as many record highs as record lows. This is what we expect with global warming and this is what we observe.

One might hope this rash of extreme weather events will be a wake up call for an Australian government dragging its feet on climate action. However, the early signs are not encouraging. To pay for flood damage, Prime Minister Gillard cut funding to a number of programs designed to reduce carbon emissions. These include schemes for cleaner cars and a number of boosts for the solar industry. As Greens senator Christina Milne expressed, cutting climate change programs to fund disaster relief is like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Another unique if somewhat bleak perspective on this course of action came from a Twitter user who described the government reaction as a new man-made reinforcing climate feedback. If we don't act strongly to solve climate change soon, we might end up spending all our energies on just surviving with it.

 

 

2011-02-09 12:56:17Smoker analogy
James Wight

jameswight@southernphone.com...
112.213.148.195

In the metaphors thread I have suggested an analogy with the link between smoking and cancer. Can an individual smoker’s death from lung cancer be attributed to their smoking? No. Does smoking increase the risk of lung cancer? Yes. Would that smoker have died from lung cancer if they hadn’t smoked? Probably not.

Also, I’ve seen a few people saying recently that linking extreme weather to climate change is “political opportunism” (eg. here). Again the smoker analogy might work: is it considered political opportunism to suggest that a smoker’s death from lung cancer is due to their smoking? (I can be pretty tactless so for all I know it might be. But in any case, even if it is “political opportunism” it doesn’t make it wrong.)

Also, the sentence “What if you load the dice so one face is heavier” should end with a question mark, not a full stop.

2011-02-09 13:00:24Nice work
climatesight
Kate
climatesight@live...
74.216.83.2
Very nice article, John - I love the dice metaphor. It looks like you've cleaned it up a lot since the first draft, and the ending is much better now. It might be good to have something about climate change in the first paragraph, so it isn't so buried down in the story, but given the title of the piece, it may not be necessary. Thumbs up from me.
2011-02-09 13:24:21political opportunism
John Cook

john@skepticalscience...
123.211.149.21

Ah, was that you who added the 'political opportunism' argument to the database - noticed that one when adding an article via the firefox add-on this morning :-)

The smoking metaphor is a good one. But in the interest of simplicity, I'll stick to the one metaphor. But I'll be keeping that smoking metaphor tucked away for the next opportunity. It's also a good way to segue into the fact that the smoking industry employed scientists to cast doubt using that very argument. In fact, they used the same scientists that fossil fuel industries are now using to cast doubt on climate change. And the scientists are using the same arguments - they've just replaced tobacco smoke with fossil fuel burning.

Naomi Oreskes would be proud :-)

2011-02-09 15:38:05Bombs away!
John Cook

john@skepticalscience...
123.211.149.21
Have shipped it off to the Guardian. Many thanks to all for your feedback which is much appreciated and helped improve the article (Wendy was brutal too, she makes a great editor).