What’s In a Name: Climate Change, Weather or Not

Alarmists will attribute every weather event to climate change. Deniers will dismiss climate change as just weather variability. Apathetics will dismiss the whole discussion as irrelevant. Is it?  What’s in a name? Identity, understanding, specificity,

There has been a running battle between meteorologists and climatologists as to the interpretation of the day-to-day events that we know as weather. Neither side has been all that helpful.  Meteorologists seem to argue that the two are different, and ignore that daily weather, cumulatively, is climate on the installment plan.

Climatologists think in long-range terms transcending the boundaries of individuals’ personal timelines, and threshold of caring.  Thus the possibilities that trouble climatologists are generally dismissed by most of the population which doesn’t view events in the same parameters.  Further, while climatologists generally paint scenarios in decades or centuries, the time frame in which cumulative daily weather events will trend to undeniable consequence, they are generally shy about making definitive statements regarding what recent events add up to.  Has recent tornado activity increased in severity? Dunno. Will a warming planet spawn more tornadoes or hurricanes with greater force? Dunno.  When will sea level rise reach critical levels of impact in various areas? Dunno.

I can respect the admission of what we don’t know, and I prefer it to brash projections based on what we think we know.  But, from a managerial point of view, it makes very difficult the task of positioning one’s self for a future that could be radically different in unpleasant ways…or not.

The recent National Climate Assessment repeats the urgency of preparing for climate change.  I accept it as a working premise, in spite of all we do not know, because of what we do know. I have paid attention to weather during the past ten years.  No, I don’t play a weather personality on TV.  I’m just like you and Bob Dylan.  I don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.

I perceive that weather events of all kinds in aggregate have increased in frequency and severity and impact over the past ten years. Since 2010, even weather personalities and many bona-fide meteorologists have come to speak routinely about ‘extreme weather’ with each such event. How long until they acknowledge that which they now call extreme as ‘the new normal’?

In corporate circles where the words ‘climate change’ dare not be acknowledged, because one knows not which wing-nut among customers, clients or other stakeholders might be enraged, the term ‘sustainability’ has served as a proxy for discussing adaptive strategies for the unspeakable.

Hunters and farmers and gardeners, and business people who will vehemently dismiss climate change in one breath will acknowledge in the next breath that the norms of the environment on which their avocations and occupations and ventures depend are undergoing undeniable change; not merely variability.

Firefighters who once spoke of ‘wildfire seasons’ now acknowledge that wildfires no longer have ‘a season’.

Despite warnings of approaching drought, the West is belatedly coming to grips with a future that is not likely to improve in the near term, and for which adaptation will be wrenching, with collateral impacts for the rest of us.

Does it matter whether we call all of this climate change or weather?  One can choose to look at storm surge, or future sea level rise, or drought, or deluges, or wildfires or flooding or extreme temperature  fluctuations,  or species migration and extinction, or tornadoes and hurricanes or economic loss from extreme weather events and resulting damage to the built environment… as individual issues. Coloradans can dismiss sea level rise. Connecticut Yankees can dismiss the risk of wildfires. But when these disparate constituencies find themselves competing for constrained resources to cope with their individual crises, they may belatedly acknowledge that they are in the same boat on the same turbulent sea.

We have witnessed the economic and political trauma resulting from storm impacts, property loss, and resultant economic hardships from the rising cost of flood insurance premiums.  What happens when comparable costs associated with all the hazards listed previously come to bear on all of us in unison?

Connecticut is today actively engaged with the issue of storm surge, courtesy of Storms Irene and Sandy.  But its legislature is beginning to look down the road at its water resource relative to future projected droughts before we become Texas and Arizona and Nevada and California.  Next we might want to think about fire hazards at a level we have not previously experienced as we observe some of our most prominent species in our heavily forested state fail over the progressively warming years.

This is the importance of a name. If we do not begin to recognize these diverse hazards as part of a shared paradigm; if we do not begin to comprehend that we will have to prioritize our limited (yes, limited) resources across this array; if we do not grasp that they are all a part of a paradigm that is driving each of them in various ways, then we cannot begin to intelligently manage the situation to our best advantage.

*   *   *

This week’s announcement of an agreement between the US and China on greenhouse gas reductions is a bit of drama without very much substantive impact at ground zero.  China has agreed to do what it must anyhow to avoid environmental suicide, but has likely been granted flexibility in approach that does not grate on its imperative of not succumbing to ‘foreign domination and dictates’ (not too different from our own ‘People’s Congress’).  And Mr. Obama will return to face a semi changed but not evolved group of Luddites in the opposition and cowards in his own party who will continue to stall progress at the national level where we can best move action to critical mass and momentum.

We are told that, while Congress may be morally, ethically and intellectually bankrupt on this issue, real progress is beginning to happen at the local and state levels where public executives have to deal with the real problems.  That may be true, but in my own state, which I affectionately refer to as ‘the land of good intentions’, because we really can’t afford more than symbolic acts of enlightenment, we have a long, long way to go.  And for all that we know,  few leaders have the courage to speak in terms of Climate Change.

What’s in a name? Identity, understanding, specificity,  Or sometimes, sustainable obfuscation.







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