Climate Desk Live 06/06/13: The Alarming Science Behind Climate Change’s Increasingly Wild Weather

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Join us for a joint Climate Desk Live and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) event moderated by Chris Mooney discussing the alarming science behind climate change’s increasingly wild weather featuring senior Weather Channel meteorologist Stu Ostro and top climate researcher Jennifer Francis.

  • Date and Time: Thursday, June 6, 2013, 4:30 p.m.
  • Location: WWF Building, 1250 24th St., NW, Washington, DC 20037.
  • To attend, please RSVP here.

Stu Ostro is a senior meteorologist at the Weather Channel, and was a longtime climate change skeptic—until the devastating 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, when he started documenting hundreds of cases of extreme and unusual weather and the patterns associated with them, and became convinced that something is very off about the atmosphere.

Jennifer Francis is a top climate researcher focused on the Arctic, whose work has drawn dramatic attention in the context of the very warm U.S. winter of 2012 (and attendant droughts and wildfires), the Russian heat wave and Pakistan floods of 2010, and other extreme weather events.

Both are now leading voices in diagnosing the wild weather that the world has seen of late—most recently, an intense winter in the UK that threatens to last throughout April.

For Ostro and Francis, the explanation for what we’re seeing is simple. More heat in the Earth’s system due to global warming is felt everywhere, and that includes the massive-scale patterns of atmospheric circulation that give us our weather.

Ostro’s observations suggest that global warming is increasing the atmosphere’s thickness, leading to stronger and more persistent ridges of high pressure, which in turn are a key to temperature, rainfall, and snowfall extremes and topsy-turvy weather patterns like we’ve had in recent years.

Francis’s scientific story is complementary. She sees the rapid warming of the Arctic weakening the northern hemisphere jet stream, and thus, once again, slowing down the weather, leaving a given pattern stuck in place for longer (making any event potentially more disruptive and extreme).

We don’t know—yet—what the next extreme manifestations of these large-scale changes in weather patterns will be. But as Ostro and Francis warn, we had better be getting ready for them—because this isn’t your grandparent’s Planet Earth any longer.

We hope you can join us for Climate Desk Live on June 6th, 2013, as we discuss this important subject.

Climate Desk Live: A Conversation With Climate Scientist Michael Mann

“Real skeptics are swayed by evidence.”

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One of the chief scientists behind the famous “hockey stick” graph, Michael Mann is among the most influential climate researchers in the United States.

He’s also, perhaps, the most regularly attacked.

It started with swipes at the hockey stick—the graph seemed to show global warming so unequivocally that skeptics made it their number one target. The furor became even more intense when some of Mann’s emails were exposed in the “ClimateGate” pseudo-scandal. Now, Mann receives regular threats and has found his personal emails pursued by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

And all of this has only made Michael Mann more outspoken.

At the next Climate Desk Live event, Mann and host Chris Mooney will discuss new research that reaffirms the validity of the hockey stick. They’ll also talk about public opinion on climate change—and why Mann believes it’s changing.

Please join us:

Wednesday, May 15, 2013, 6:30 p.m. at the University of California Washington Center, 1608 Rhode Island Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036. To attend, please RSVP to cdl@climatedesk.org

The Most Controversial Chart in History, Explained

Climate deniers threw all their might at disproving the famous “hockey stick” climate change graph. Here’s why they failed.

Back in 1998, a little known  climate scientist named Michael Mann and two colleagues published a paper that sought to reconstruct the planet’s past temperatures going back half a millennium before the era of thermometers—thereby showing just how out of whack recent warming has been. The finding: Recent northern hemisphere temperatures had been “warmer than any other year since (at least) AD 1400.” The graph depicting this result looked rather like a hockey stick: After a long period of relatively minor temperature variations (the “shaft”), it showed a sharp mercury upswing during the last century or so (“the blade”).

The report moved quickly through climate science circles. Mann and a colleague soon lengthened the shaft of the hockey stick back to the year 1000 AD—and then, in 2001, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change prominently featured the hockey stick in its Third Assessment Report. Based on this evidence, the IPCC proclaimed that “the increase in temperature in the 20th century is likely to have been the largest of any century during the past 1,000 years.”

And then all hell broke loose.

IPCC Third Assessment Report / Wikipedia

IPCC Third Assessment Report / Wikipedia

Mann tells the full story of the hockey stick—and the myriad unsuccessful attacks on it—in his 2012 book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines; Mann will appear at a Climate Desk Live event on May 15 to discuss this saga. But to summarize a very complex history of scientific and political skirmishes in a few paragraphs:

The hockey stick was repeatedly attacked, and so was Mann himself. Congress got involved, with demands for Mann’s data and other information, including a computer code used in his research. Then the National Academy of Sciences weighed in in 2006, vindicating the hockey stick as good science and noting:

“The basic conclusion of Mann et al. (1998, 1999) was that the late 20th century warmth in the Northern Hemisphere was unprecedented during at least the last 1,000 years. This conclusion has subsequently been supported by an array of evidence that includes both additional large-scale surface temperature reconstructions and pronounced changes in a variety of local proxy indicators, such as melting on ice caps and the retreat of glaciers around the world.”

It didn’t change the minds of the deniers, though—and soon Mann and his colleagues were drawn into the 2009 “Climategate” pseudo-scandal, which purported to reveal internal emails that (among other things) seemingly undermined the hockey stick. Only, they didn’t.

In the meantime, those wacky scientists kept doing what they do best—finding out what’s true. As Mann relates, over the years other researchers were able to test his work using “more extensive datasets, and more sophisticated methods. And the bottom line conclusion doesn’t change.” Thus the single hockey stick gradually became what Mann calls a “hockey team.” “If you look at all the different groups, there are literally about two dozen” hockey sticks now, he says.

Mother Jones‘ Jaeah Lee traced the strange evolution of the hockey stick story in this video:

Indeed, two just-published studies support the hockey stick more powerfully than ever. One, just out in Nature Geoscience, featuring more than 80 authors, showed with extensive global data on past temperatures that the hockey stick’s shaft seems to extend back reliably for at least 1,400 years. Recently in Science, meanwhile, Shaun Marcott of Oregon State University and his colleagues extended the original hockey stick shaft back 11,000 years. “There’s now at least tentative evidence that the warming is unprecedented over the entire period of the Holocene, the entire period since the last ice age,” says Mann.

So what does it all mean? Well, here’s the millennial scale irony: Climate deniers threw everything they had at the hockey stick. They focused immense resources on what they thought was the Achilles Heel of global warming research—and even then, they couldn’t hobble it. (Though they certainly sowed plenty of doubt in the mind of the public.)

What’s more, even if they’d succeeded, in a scientific sense it wouldn’t have even mattered.

“Climate deniers like to make it seem like the entire weight of evidence for climate change rests on the hockey stick,” explains Mann. “And that’s not the case. We could get rid of all these reconstructions, and we could still know that climate change is a threat, and that we’re causing it.” The basic case for global warming caused by humans rests on basic physics—and, basic thermometer readings from around the globe. The hockey stick, in contrast, is the result of a field of research called paleoclimatology (the study of past climates) that, while fascinating, only provides one thread of evidence among many for what we’re doing to the planet.

Center for American Progress

Center for American Progress

Meanwhile, the hockey stick’s blade doesn’t just stop rising of its own accord. It’s just going to go up, and up, and up, as the image above, combining the Marcott hockey stick with projections of where temperatures are headed by 2100, plainly shows.

When he shows that graph to audiences, says Mann, “I often hear an audible gasp.” In this sense, the hockey stick does indeed matter—for it dramatizes just how much human irresponsibility, in a relatively short period of time, can devastate the only home we have.

Climate Desk Live 06/06/13: The Alarming Science Behind Climate Change’s Increasingly Wild Weather

Mike Kane/San Antonio Express-News via ZUMAPress

Mike Kane/San Antonio Express-News via ZUMAPress

Join us for a joint Climate Desk Live and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) event moderated by Chris Mooney discussing the alarming science behind climate change’s increasingly wild weather featuring senior Weather Channel meteorologist Stu Ostro and top climate researcher Jennifer Francis.

  • Date and Time: Thursday, June 6, 2013, 4:30 p.m.
  • Location: WWF Building, 1250 24th St., NW, Washington, DC 20037.
  • To attend, please RSVP here.

Stu Ostro is a senior meteorologist at the Weather Channel, and was a longtime climate change skeptic—until the devastating 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, when he started documenting hundreds of cases of extreme and unusual weather and the patterns associated with them, and became convinced that something is very off about the atmosphere.

Jennifer Francis is a top climate researcher focused on the Arctic, whose work has drawn dramatic attention in the context of the very warm U.S. winter of 2012 (and attendant droughts and wildfires), the Russian heat wave and Pakistan floods of 2010, and other extreme weather events.

Both are now leading voices in diagnosing the wild weather that the world has seen of late—most recently, an intense winter in the UK that threatens to last throughout April.

For Ostro and Francis, the explanation for what we’re seeing is simple. More heat in the Earth’s system due to global warming is felt everywhere, and that includes the massive-scale patterns of atmospheric circulation that give us our weather.

Ostro’s observations suggest that global warming is increasing the atmosphere’s thickness, leading to stronger and more persistent ridges of high pressure, which in turn are a key to temperature, rainfall, and snowfall extremes and topsy-turvy weather patterns like we’ve had in recent years.

Francis’s scientific story is complementary. She sees the rapid warming of the Arctic weakening the northern hemisphere jet stream, and thus, once again, slowing down the weather, leaving a given pattern stuck in place for longer (making any event potentially more disruptive and extreme).

We don’t know—yet—what the next extreme manifestations of these large-scale changes in weather patterns will be. But as Ostro and Francis warn, we had better be getting ready for them—because this isn’t your grandparent’s Planet Earth any longer.

We hope you can join us for Climate Desk Live on June 6th, 2013, as we discuss this important subject.

VIDEO: What Does the Keystone XL Fight Mean for Environmentalism?

The latest Climate Desk Live asked if pipeline opponents picked the wrong battle—and if that even matters.

If you’re a liberal or centrist, generally inclined to bash those “hippies” to the left of you—well, perhaps you should stop and think about it for a moment, and not resume bashing until you at least understand the best case activists can make for what they’re trying to achieve, and the particular strategy they’ve chosen.

That was one upshot of the latest Climate Desk Live briefing in Washington, DC, a collaboration between the Climate Desk and one of its key partners, Grist. The event focused on what the Keystone XL Pipeline protest movement means to the future of environmentalism, and featured a panel that spanned from activist to centrist, uniting representatives of the climate grassroots group 350.org and the Council on Foreign Relations. (Mega archive of event Tweets here.)

The protestors and organizers surrounding Keystone XL have often been criticized for picking the wrong fight by focusing on a pipeline that is unlikely to be defeated and, some claim, won’t significantly increase global carbon emissions. The activists argue back that the fight is important as a galvanizing battle, and that when it comes to wanton burning of fossil fuels, it’s simply time to take a stand.

Against this backdrop, the panel took up the question of what the impact this movement could have on the broader push for limiting carbon emissions. On that, everyone agreed that the notion that the Keystone XL protests will have any one clear effect, whether good or bad, is far too simplistic. The movement’s impact echo in complex ways—perhaps backfiring in some respects yet promoting progress in others. Caught up in the moment as we all are, we can’t fully say—but for that very reason, how sure are we that we can criticize?

May Boeve, who as a student activist worked with Bill McKibben and went on to co-found 350.org (and is now its executive director), spoke first, and frankly, about the anti-Keystone movement. “Is it the perfect political battle?” she asked. “Are we sure we’re gonna win? No.” But Boeve argued that the movement has mobilized a new constituency, and that itself is an achievement that will extend beyond this specific fight. “No matter what the president decides, we have a climate movement now that is stronger than we’ve ever had, and it is going to keep growing,” she said.

Boeve was followed by two journalists who have struggled with the Keystone issue and, ultimately, come out on the side of the activists. For Grist‘s David Roberts, the reason was simple: “Aside from whether Keystone XL is the right target, or how much effect on carbon emissions Keystone may or may not have, the fact that forty thousand people uprooted themselves and went to DC on a freezing cold day, and stood there chanting, is a signal.” For Roberts, it’s silly to say that we know precisely what will draw attention to the climate crisis. Rather, “we don’t know what’s going to make change, so just need to pull every lever that’s available.”

Indeed, Roberts suggested that by making climate dissent visible, and by showing that a lot of people care about our burning of fossil fuels, activists may make…a lot of people care. Sociologists talk about the concept of “social proof”: People shift their behavior to match what they see others doing, because that’s a cue that helps them to determine what is and isn’t accepted. This logic suggests people should see more protesters causing a ruckus over climate change.

Michael Grunwald, the bestselling author of The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era, was in surprise agreement with Roberts on this. While Grunwald considered himself more of a centrist than other panelists, his view on Keystone and climate change was that sometimes, you just have to take a stand. ”If we think it’s a war, sometimes you’ve got to show that you’re willing to fight,” he said. And if we are now met on a great battlefield called Keystone—well, so be it, said Grunwald. Criticizing activists at this point, he remarked—to much laughter—is like saying, “Hey Rosa Parks, it’s not about the bus system!”

The event also offered an appropriately cautionary note. Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations, author of the new book The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America’s Future, outlined possible negative side-effects from the Keystone protests. For instance: If President Obama blocks the pipeline, enraging Republicans and also a number of congressional Democrats, there’s a risk that Congress might “take away his Clean Air Act authority,” Levi suggested. “I think that’s a big deal.” Then there’s the broader political problem: A lot of people in “depressed communities that are struggling economically” look to energy development projects, like the pipeline, for jobs. Those people aren’t the enemy, and could be alienated if they see climate protestors as threatening local economic growth. “What I worry about is the hollowing out of the middle on climate change,” Levi said.

So what’s the ultimate answer? As the Keystone saga unfolds, nobody can really say what all of its ramifications will be. Meanwhile, the activists are busy and, just maybe, scaring the center a little. Pressure on moderate politicians, Roberts explained, “only works if there’s genuine fear of what the crazy hippies might do.” Like make history, for instance. Or as Roberts put it: “In conclusion: ‘Yay, activism!’”

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The Climate Desk is a journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact—human, environmental, economic, political—of a changing climate. The partners are The Atlantic, Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Mother Jones, Slate, and Wired.