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Terminology in Science and Politics, a Case Study -- Climate Change

I just got back from a ten day sojourn in Las Vegas, my annual pilgrimage to the WSOP (as in World Series of Poker). The games were not good to me. But that’s okay. Poker is a game with significant variance and you just learn to live with the fluctuations.

But the focus today isn’t poker, it’s terminology, the words that are used in science and in political discourse. The stimulus was the Vegas, daily high temperature. It went over 110° F every day of my visit and managed to hit a stunning 115° one afternoon.

I don’t want to hear any nonsense about “dry heat” — 115° is brutal no matter how low the humidity. In fact, the low humidity did horrible things to my nasal passages which were in a desperate state to keep themselves from drying out and cracking.

During my stay there was more news about the ongoing drought in California which is now spreading to Oregon and Washington State, wildfires up and down the coast and ridiculously high temperatures in Vancouver, northern British Columbia and Alaska.

How should we describe these meteorological events? What words should be used? Are they evidence of “global warming” or “climate change?” Is it “anthropogenic” or “normal variation?” Are those who question the causes for these effects or even whether they are occurring at all “skeptics” or “deniers?”

The science is unambiguous. The climate is changing, and rapidly. The earth is warming and the impact of this can be seen in a wide variety of effects from shifting migration patterns of birds, northward drifting of species distribution, increases in CO2 levels of the planet’s oceans which is having dramatic impact on fish, mollusks, coral and other marine species.

Severe weather events are increasingly common and variation of temperature and precipitation is rising dramatically across the planet. Icepacks are melting, glaciers receding and the long sought for “northern passage” over the pole is now there during the summer. These changes are also seen in subtle but potentially devastating effects like the pine bark beetle infestations that are destroying whole forests across Canada and the northern parts of the United States. The winters have become so warm that the beetle pupae survive in far greater numbers than in the past.

One of the reasons why these effects are not getting the attention they deserve in the press and in the halls of Congress is the unfortunate tendency for members of the media to use the term “global warming” which produces empty and mostly irrelevant arguments about whether temperatures today are higher than last year’s or “hockey stick” graphs, idiotic rants from brain dead morons like Rush Limbaugh whenever it snows in New York or empty claims that “gee, didn’t we think that things were cooling off just a decade or two ago?”

Local and global temperatures, when plotted over years and decades, always show variation. By focusing on these numbers the picture gets distorted — and this is an issue we cannot afford to let be distorted.

The problems are compounded by another unhappy lexicographic choice, to call those who question changing climate “skeptics.” They aren’t. They are “deniers.” Within the scientific community a skeptic is an honored soul. Skeptics might question the legitimacy of the experimental methods used in a study. They will inquire about interpretations of data and wonder about the explanatory reach of theoretical models. Skeptics ask hard questions about claims. A skeptic might question findings about IQ and race or want to probe deeply into claims made about novel drugs or the iffy arguments made by promoters of homeopathy. It’s all part of the scientific game. Skeptics keep things honest and above board.

Within the world of the earth scientists, within meteorology and geology there are virtually no skeptics for there is little to be skeptical about. The data showing rapid and worrisome climate change are overwhelming. Go here for a good overview of the scientific skeptics perspective.

There are a few deniers but they are a very small minority. Most deniers are simply ignorant (or Fox News watchers). The dangerous ones are those in Congress where, led by Senator James Inhofe (R-Ok) who has assured us that climate change cannot be real because God is protecting us and that the evidence for this can be found in the Bible (Genesis 8:22 is his favorite line — look it up if you feel you need to though it won’t help much in unpacking Inhofe’s peculiar form of logic). Inhofe apparently also thinks that an empty stunt like bringing a snowball into the Senate somehow negates all the data. Inhofe is not a “skeptic.” He is a “denier” and a look at who contributes to his campaigns and what state he represents will tell you why.

The take-home message is pretty straightforward. The climate is changing. A warming trend is part of it. FWIW, global mean temperature in 2014 was the hottest since record-keeping began. It beat out the previous high which was 2013 and the temperatures in 2015 look like they will be another record.

But warming is just part of the problem. Virtually every aspect of life will change in the coming years including distribution of species (many of who will die off), shifts in agriculture as weather patterns change and droughts occur where water was once plentiful and floods become common where they once were nonexistent. Weather variability goes up as global temperatures rise. Hurricanes, tornados, extreme snow falls, crushing heat waves all will occur with greater frequency than before.

Denying this reality is, literally, a crime against humanity and we better start using the right terminology to talk about this stuff because the problems will not go away just because some bozo from Oklahoma brings a snowball into the Senate.

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