Year 2, Month 6, Day 8: Auntie Em?

The Charlotte Observer has an editorial connecting some of the dots between the Joplin tornadoes and climate change. But it’s a tricky thing:

No one storm, drought or flood can be proof of global climate change, of course. Weather varies; it takes decades for scientists to document trends. Yet climate scientists for years have warned that climate change will bring more extreme storms, more rain and more drought. Regardless, the very existence of climate change remains politically controversial. This spring the Republican-dominated U.S. House, voting 240-184, rejected a resolution saying “climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare.” Never mind that among the groups accepting that proposition are the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the World Meteorological Organization, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA.

I was very grateful for Greg Laden’s explanation, which gave me the robbery analogy I used in my letter, and which I strongly recommend.

My letter, sent May 27; I am very pleased with my last sentence:

While it’s easy and facile to attempt a direct linkage between devastating tornadoes and global climate change, asking if those destructive storms were “caused” by global warming isn’t going to provide a meaningful answer — because there are many different ways to understand causality. The greenhouse effect impacts climate, a planetary system, while storms, droughts, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and unseasonal precipitation are local and regional. By analogy: just because crimes of robbery increase during economic downturns doesn’t mean your brother-in-law got mugged because times are hard, and just because teen drinking is generally correlated with automobile accidents doesn’t mean that your neighbor’s specific fender-bender was caused by a six-pack in the wrong hands. And just because we can’t claim direct causal relationships between tornadoes and climate change doesn’t relieve us of our responsibilities to our descendants, who will live in a world where such destructive weather is horribly routine. Ignorance of the laws of probability is no excuse.

Warren Senders

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