Sunday, October 22, 2017

Linking Hurricanes to Climate Change? Not So Easy.

The text below is a reposting of something that I published on Oct 2, 2017 on "Medium".  On the basis of data from Google Trends, I proposed that, on the average, the public had not perceived the link of climate change with the spate of hurricanes of 2017. A few weeks later, it seems that my observation was correct: the latest polls indicate that the American public is slowly (very slowly) awakening to the idea of human-caused climate change, but that the 2017 hurricane season has not triggered a substantial change of views. Here is the post.

Linking hurricanes to climate change is harder thank you think

by Ugo Bardi

Above: the results of a Google Trends search for the term “climate change”. The recent wave of Caribbean hurricanes has had little effect on the number of searches on the Web. Most people just didn’t think that hurricanes and climate change are linked to each other.

We all live inside our specific information cocoons where we hear from sources we tend to trust.

If you, like me, live in a cocoon where it is generally agreed that human-caused climate change is real and dangerous, then you would think that the recent series of hurricanes hitting the US should have made a great impact on the public perception of the climate change threat. The impression I had from the messages I received and what I read from my sources of information is of an onrush of excitation that made it clear to everybody sane in his/her mind that we need to act against climate change before it is too late.

Ahem, no.

This is a classic example of the working of echo chambers. Out there, in the world of the mainstream media, the link between hurricanes and climate change was occasionally mentioned but that had little or no effect on people’s perception of the issue.

Look at the Google data at the beginning of this post. You see how, in June, Trump’s announcement that the US would withdraw from the Paris agreement aroused some interest in climate and it may have pushed people to be more aware of the climate change threat.

But the hurricanes didn’t move people in the US to search for more information on climate change on the Web. Worldwide, it was the same.

So, the attempt of moving public opinion by linking the hurricanes to climate change seems to have been a major flop. Actually, it may turn out to be more than just a flop, it may backfire. Read what satirist Scott Adams said on his blog:

Last winter I saw climate skeptics (or deniers in some cases) proclaiming climate change a hoax because it was cold outside. The scientists and pro-climate-change folks mocked those poor souls for not understanding the difference between anecdotal evidence and science. You can’t determine a long term trend by looking out the window, say all scientists. And if you think you can, you’re being a big dope who doesn’t know the first thing about science.
If you don’t understand that anecdotal data in isolation is generally useless to scientists, you don’t understand anything about science. A year ago, that described a lot of climate skeptics who were looking out their windows, seeing snow, and declaring climate change a hoax.
But that was last year. This week the sides reversed. Now I keep seeing climate alarmists on social media looking at the hurricanes and declaring them strong evidence of climate change. They might be right. But if they are, it is by coincidence and not by science. Scientists say it is too early to tell. So now we have a bizarre situation in which the pro-science side is disagreeing with the scientists on their own side. That’s what confirmation bias gets you. Both sides see anecdotal evidence as real.

One problem with Scott Adams is that when he speaks about climate science he shows the same kind of total incompetence shown by the character of the pointy-haired boss in his “Dilbert” strip. But here, there is no doubt that he has a point.

Personally, I am perfectly willing to trust climate scientists when they tell me that global warming has a role in making hurricanes stronger. But I can see how most people will be confused by the idea that, no, snowstorms don’t tell us anything about global warming but, yes, hurricanes do.

To say nothing about being able to follow the concatenation of concepts that would lead them to understand that installing a solar panel in California can help people in Puerto Rico survive the next wave of hurricanes.

I can also see climate science deniers wringing their hands and telling themselves: “Now, let’s wait for the first snowstorm of this winter, and then we’ll tell those alarmists what they deserve!”

So, another day, another flop. We just don’t seem to be able to find the right way to move society toward doing something serious to stop climate change. Actually, in many cases, we seem to be perfectly able to worsen things.

So at a minimum, we need to rethink what we have been doing in terms of climate communications — because it is just not working.


  1. Anecdotal information: I have a business colleague who has long questioned the climate change story. He has three homes in Houston (two of them rental properties). During Harvey all three had water up to their windows. He now seems to accept that “something is going on”.

    We have other friends in the same area who accept that the climate is changing. They had just finished remodeling their home after the last storm and, once more, they were flooded out. After a while you lose your resilience.

    Other parts of the city are being permanently abandoned since they are so flood prone.

    I have lived and worked on the Texas Gulf Coast for many years and have seen many storms and hurricanes but Harvey was unprecedented.

  2. Some days the news is akin to an echo chamber in a carnival fun house.

  3. I love your term "echo chamber", it has really somthing to it.
    To say, people just don't get it, is the understatement of the year.
    In their defense, one has to admit, that the responsibility for the fate of the whole globe we are seeing lately is historically a total paradigm shift, it is the first time since big bang, and it will never cease to be there from now on.
    And then, Catalonians have nothing better to do than unleash a nationalistic conflict, the Japanese want to build up a strong military, the Brasilians are slashing one environmental protection law after the other, Vysegrad states are determined to burn all coal they have left and the Germans are talking sweet and acting fossil. (sorry for the rant)

  4. I am not attracted by Scott-Adams use of sides, i.e. 'pro-science' & 'scientists', as against presumably the other side composed of more normal US citizens. He likes to write that on the one hand these parts of an assumed ‘science crowd’ (my phrase) agree with one another, and on the other hand they disagree. Thus, (I paraphrase) 'what can reasonable people conclude?’

    Although superficially correct, this puts climate science in the same bag as any other contended public opinion – and in this case he can conjure up an even larger group called ‘alarmists’. Science according to Adams then loses its supposed objective authority. (Essentially this seems the ‘bad science’ argument I have come across among scientist friends who are ‘climate change deniers’.)

    However, it would be difficult to call people living near the US Gulf coast ‘hurricane alarmists’, so there is a limit to the effectiveness of Adams’ rhetoric. (See @ ChemEng’s comment.)

    With regard to hurricanes globally and in the Atlantic basin the long term trend is not sufficiently visible as yet. In this case, Scott Adams has a handle on US public opinion.


  5. Lisa Barrett inspired thought experiment
    Lisa Barrett (How Emotions Are Made) claims that we make emotions on the fly, prompted by circumstances (our environment, including our body). So let's try a couple of thought experiments:

    a. Pretend you are the mother of a 2 year old child. Now imagine, and notice how your body feels, that you are driving with your child in a car when a heavy vehicle driven by a texting adult smashes into you. Imagine your child crushed and bleeding. Now imagine that you had been driving a heavy SUV, and had some critical protection against the crash.

    Now try to imagine, and feel in your body, the effects of climate change on your 2 year old in 50 years time. Try to feel the difference that buying a very small vehicle might have made.

    As Barrett says, our physiology is designed to keep us alive. Facing situations which are remote from what we were designed to deal with, what are the chances that we will conjure up the emotions necessary to motivate the 'correct' behavior.

    b. Consider Mike Pence, then the governor of Indiana, sending a letter to then President Obama saying that Indiana would not enforce the anti-coal air quality standards. The governor cited the jobs in coal production in Indiana as his justification.

    Now assume that you, or a family member, work in the coal industry...or even that you work in some other 'polluting' industry such as oil and gas and automobiles. How does your body feel?

    Alternatively, try to imagine that coal has some connection with a devastating hurricane hitting Miami Beach and demolishing all those multi-million dollar houses. Can your concern for the billionaires overcome your feelings about losing a job?

    c. I used to have a barber who was a fisherman. He eagerly looked forward to the killer hurricane that would absolutely level all the housing developments which have covered the Atlantic coast of the US. Get rid of all that development and the good old days of fishing and enjoying life might come back for people with the salary of a barber.

    Do you think that the barber was insane?

    Don Stewart

    1. Don, I don't know whether you are serious. ( 'is it a couple or 3 thought experiments?' is a trivial starter)(and I have appreciated some of your previous observations)
      a. In aggregate nothing will protect my >2 yo grandchildren from climate change except global (personal and) aggregate emissions <250kg per capita, almost immediately. In immediate terms nothing will protect them from a criminally negligent truck driver at the wrong time. I would just have to experience that and live it out, or not.
      b. Ridiculously juvenile scenario.
      c. Those developments may be restricting personal lifestyle and contributing in a minor way to AGW, independently of that the barber is sociopathic. For myself, I say the 'developments' physical, economic, social and political are unrelentingly depressing and leading to total disaffection, including with human consciousness but the discretion and will to 'level' relates only to my own consciousness and life.

  6. Recently I stumbled upon this article about global warming:
    I'm not a scientist but I've developed a habit to look the world from different angles and I'd like to know, Sir, what is your opinion about the Figure 7 in this article (in connection with the last sentence of the article).
    I repeat - I'm not a scientistm just somebody who tries to see some logic in the world:)

  7. Don, I'll agree that paying attention to immediate threats and opportunities and maximizing the activities that provide immediate gratification is a sign of individual mental health. Whereas those of us who spend our time speculating about the future state of the planet are the ones who are more likely to be unhappy--- and thus more likely to end up living underneath a freeway overpass instead of driving the kids to soccer practice in a 8,000# Explorer.

    Not to say that "don't worry, be happy" will keep the Greenland Ice Sheet from melting and the Canadian Boreal forest from burning up in a massive conflagration. But that is somebody else's problem--- until it isn't.

  8. @crybaby and horizonstar
    Lisa Barrett is laying out a theory which is based on the last few decades of neuroscience. It departs from some of traditional psychology. It's neither good nor bad...just the way humans work. The decisions we make are, to my mind, somewhat Darwinian. We usually have competing agendas (e.g., steal the money or be honest and go hungry; get along vs. get ahead). Barrett lays out the proposal that we mostly make up our minds and then think up some justification for what we have decided to do.

    In some cases, there are strategies which may be effective to bring about change. See this article about walking and biking in Burlington, VT:
    The citizens get to experience, in a cheap demonstration, what they would get from a more expensive, permanent change. As Barrett says, all we have to do to change who we will be tomorrow is to change our perception of our experiences today.

    But that's the trick. If there is a connection between purchasing a heavy SUV and the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, it is hard for me to think of a cheap demonstration such as the Burlington walking and biking demonstration. What is viscerally real is the thought of our child mangled in a car accident. The rather abstract ideas about the Greenland ice sheet, plus the discounting of the future which seems to be a universal human trait, make it hard for me to visualize any analog to the Burlington demonstration. But maybe somebody else can do better than I can.

    Perhaps we also need to think some more about 'perception'. For example, here are the results of an experiment with psychiatric drugs:
    It has been apparent for some time that beliefs are extremely important in how we experience the world. Our actions are, in fact, based on our predictions about what we think is going to happen. Then, if we are paying close attention, we modify our train of predictions based on the observed error. An outfielder catching a fly ball is extremely good at the process. But in many cases, humans are quite lackadaisical about detecting and reacting to errors. There may be some potential in error detection which we are not exploiting.

    My goal here has been to illuminate a few of the reasons why 'education about climate change' hasn't been very effective.

    Don Stewart

  9. And about the barber.

    Is he a sociopath? Does he sound anything like a French Degrowth Philosopher? Would his devastating hurricane do anything to restore the wetlands and sequester carbon? Does the fact that he is lower income have anything to do with labeling him?

    So a lot of people who think they are combating climate change secretly hope that Mar-A-Lago can be saved?
    Don Stewart

  10. Insight or Diversion
    Kathleen Stock wrote an article about emotion laden events such as watching a scary movie or reading a tear-jerking book. Lisa Barrett tweeted a link to it:

    So, if we are so terrified of the monster, how come we keep eating the popcorn, and walk out of the movie theater laughing?

    I do not know the answer to that question, but I suggest it has something to do with connecting hurricanes and burning fossil fuels. Human are quite capable of 'suspending our disbelief' when we read or watch or listen to a work of fiction. There is 'the work of fiction' which takes over our brain for a short period of time, and then we go right back to 'the real world'. In fact, the fictional (the movie) and the real (the popcorn) can co-exist once we have learned the trick. Recall that the initial audiences for film who saw a locomotive coming right at them out of the screen really were terrified.

    So I suggest that President Obama was capable of entertaining two trains of thought at the same time. On the one hand, he was educated well enough to believe that global warming was real, but on the other hand he had to deal with the real world of a wife and two children who wanted to go on vacations, and so he spent 90 million carbon dioxide saturated dollars on vacations during his 8 years of presidency. The monster and the popcorn co-existed without any seeming stress.

    It seems to me that a scientifically based program for dealing with climate change in terms of the public's willingness to actually change behavior may need to deal with this phenomena.

    Don Stewart

  11. I'd like to add the polarity individual vs. collective behaviour to the discussion, where government action belongs to the latter, because it enforces the sacrifice on all. Many responsible business leaders call for climate legislation - why? Because they cannot implement strong climate saving company behaviour alone without the risk of bankruptcy. But they can, when everybody has to.
    In top-down-manner, behaviour can be changed with the stroke of a pen, so to say. Of course this does not work without at least a cognitive majority consent, if not an emotional.
    A system of interdependent individuals has an incredible inertia. Climate-friendly talking and acting can grow over the boundaries of pioneering groups into the mainstream, but this is a slow process: two steps forward, one back.
    Then the aspect of reality. Even for those who approve the science cognitively, emotionally it is not real, not touchable, not palpable. It can, though, get more reality in the conversation living in our peer groups, the way of talking about it.

  12. It seems that even Trump administration is willing to admit the obvious:



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)