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Explaining Climate

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In Hot, Flat and Crowded, his best-selling 2008 call to action on climate change, pundit Thomas Friedman employs a familiar analogy. A society unconcerned about climate change, he writes, is like a frog in a pot of water whose temperature is slowly rising. But the increase in temperature is so gradual that before the frog realizes what's up, he's cooked.

The analogy is meant to spark urgency, and to shame us into being smarter than frogs. But listening to climate skeptics sound off, you wonder whether the frog metaphor also reinforces mistaken impressions about how climate works. 

The frog analogy, after all, perpetrates the faulty assumption that climate change means the planet will warm steadily and much the same everywhere -- like a house whose thermostat is being turned up. 

This misunderstanding leads to everyday skepticism like the "global warming, my ass" jokes your next-door neighbor cracks whenever it snows. It also allows prominent skeptics like Washington Post columnist George Will to get away with arguing that because the past decade was by some measures cooler than the '90s, climate change is a hoax.

But such arguments confuse climate and weather. Climate means a place's typical, or average, weather (including things like cold winters in Pittsburgh). Weather, by contrast, is simply whatever's happening at a given moment (including 70-degree days here in February).

Straightforward enough. But in a 2009 study conducted in Pittsburgh by the University of Washington, 37 percent of respondents agreed that "Climate means pretty much the same thing as weather." That actually represents an increase from the 22 percent who agreed to that erroneous statement back in 1992, says UW researcher Ann Bostrom.

Of course, climate is complicated. The planet is very large and diverse, and long-term global trends (like the 1 degree Fahrenheit of warming we've already experienced) can be masked locally.

The Arctic, for example, is warming faster than the rest of the planet -- even as the Southeastern U.S. experiences unusual cold because of the atmospheric phenomenon known as El Niño. And though glaciers are shrinking everywhere -- threatening fresh-water supplies from Colorado to China -- it's easy to ignore if you don't see big changes in your backyard.

Moreover, many people don't grasp that the "cooler" '00s still included several of the warmest years on record.

"You can't look at a particularly cold winter in the Northeastern U.S. as evidence against global warming," says Mike Rosenmeier, a climatologist at the University of Pittsburgh.

Likewise, experts have long said that climate change would have such contrary results as making deserts bigger in some places, and flooding others. That's why scientists like Rosenmeier prefer "climate change" to the more familiar "global warming."

How to better explain all this? Perhaps one underlying problem is that people envision the world as a big machine that has regular, predictable habits (like a house with a thermostat). In reality, however, the earth is more like a living organism, with many systems (hydrologic, solar, etc.) that interact in complex ways.

Might we instead think of the climate as a person -- and greenhouse gasses as toxic chemicals she's constantly ingesting? In this analogy, the sick person has good days and bad days; or perhaps a balky stomach and clear sinuses today, and the opposite tomorrow. However, barring treatment that cures the cause (doses of greenhouse gasses), the prognosis is clear: death -- i.e., an end to the hospitable climate that allowed civilization itself to arise.

I tried the sick-person analogy on Rosenmeier and Carnegie Mellon University engineering and public-policy professor M. Granger Morgan. Both rated it "not bad," though with caveats. 

Rosenmeier worries that any analogy risks oversimplifying something as complex as climate change. And Morgan, director of CMU's Climate Decision Making Center, says the problem isn't so much that people can't understand climate science; it's that, compared to their daily worries, its dangers seem far away into the future.

On the other hand, healthy people usually feel that way about getting sick.

And frogs don't think about it at all.

Ill treatment: Cartoonishness aside, maybe thinking of the planet as a sick person is a better way to understand climate change.
  • Ill treatment: Cartoonishness aside, maybe thinking of the planet as a sick person is a better way to understand climate change.

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