Understanding Climate Change Means Reading Beyond Headlines

By David Suzuki
The David Suzuki Foundation

Seeing terms like “post-truth” and “alternative facts” gain traction in the news convinces me that politicians, media workers and readers could benefit from a refresher course in how science helps us understand the world. ReportingCorporate inventory program. A program to produce annual corporate inventories that are keeping with the principles, standards, and guidance of the GHG Protocol Corporate Standard. This includes all institutional, managerial, and technical arrangements made for the collection of data, ... on science is difficult at the best of times. Trying to communicate complex ideas and distil entire studies into eye-catching headlines and brief stories can open the door to misinformation and limited understanding.

The new NASA global data set combines historical measurements with data from climate simulations using the best available computer models to provide forecasts of how global temperature (shown here) and precipitation might change up to 2100 under different greenhouse gas emissions scenarios. Image: NASA

The new NASA global data set combines historical measurements with data from climate simulations using the best available computer models to provide forecasts of how global temperature (shown here) and precipitationNo reegle definitive available. might change up to 2100 under different greenhouse gas emissionsGreenhouse gas emissions cause dangerous anthropogenic climate change. Emissions include CO2, fluoridated gases, methane which are emitted by human activity such as deforestation and burning fossil fuels, and water vapour. scenarios.
Image: NASA

Recent headlines about a climate study, “Shifting patterns of mild weatherWeather refers to the state of the atmosphere with regard to temperature, cloudiness, rainfall, wind, and other meteorological conditions. (UKCIP) in response to projected radiative forcing”, in the February 2017 issue of Climatic Change illustrate the predicament. Some news outlets implied the study showed countries such as Canada and the U.K. would benefit from increasingly frequent “mild weather days” brought on by climate changeClimate change is a lasting change in weather patterns over long periods of time. It can be a natural phenomena and and has occurred on Earth even before people inhabited it. Quite different is a current situation that is also referred to as climate change, anthropogenic climate change, or .... Many failed to convey the true take-home message: Climate change will have devastating consequences for human civilization.

Just ask the study’s author, Karin van der Wiel, research scientist at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute. She studied the frequency of mild weather days as a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. She found a few countries, mostly in the mid-latitudes, will experience slightly more frequent mild weather — defined as days between 18 and 30 C with less than one millimetre of rainRain is liquid water in the form of droplets that have condensed from atmospheric water vapor and then precipitated—that is, become heavy enough to fall under gravity. Rain is a major component of the water cycle and is responsible for depositing most of the fresh water on the Earth. It ... and dew point temperature not exceeding 20 C. But that’s not the whole story.

“The climate is changing in many places over the world and these changes are ongoing now,” Van der Wiel said in an email. “Globally, mild weather is decreasing and in many locations summers are going to be increasingly too hot and too humid to be considered mild. These are not desirable changes.”

Van der Wiel chose to examine climate change and mild weather rather than extreme events such as floodsThe overflowing of the normal confines of a stream or other body of water, or the accumulation of water over areas that are not normally submerged. Floods include river (fluvial) floods, flash floods, urban floods, pluvial floods, sewer floods, coastal floods, and glacial lake outburst floods ..., wildfires and droughtA period of abnormally dry weather long enough to cause a serious hydrological imbalance. Drought is a relative term, therefore any discussion in terms of precipitation deficit must refer to the particular precipitation-related activity that is under discussion. For example, shortage of ... to make it easier for people to relate to the issue and inspire them to learn more.

“I am happy the research was picked up so widely; that way more people hopefully will learn that climate is changing the weather near them and in the coming decades,” she said, adding, “mild weather is not the only important thing in climate change, and therefore the other, more alarming, aspects of climate change should not be forgotten.”

Van der Wiel points out that mild weather isn’t necessarily good, as it can also create negative conditions.

“If there are projected changes in mild weather, that means there are changes in temperature, precipitation and/or humidityHumidity is the amount of water vapor in the air. Water vapor is the gaseous state of water and is invisible. Humidity indicates the likelihood of precipitation, dew, or fog. Higher humidity reduces the effectiveness of sweating in cooling the body by reducing the rate of evaporation of moisture ...,” she said, noting that although mild weather could create more opportunities for things such as outdoor recreation, it could also have negative consequences like changing snowmelt patterns and threatening water resourcesClimate change is expected to exacerbate current stresses on water resources from population growth and economic and land-use change, including urbanisation. On a regional scale, mountain snow pack, glaciers and small ice caps play a crucial role in freshwater availability. Widespread mass ....

Mild weather at the wrong time and place can be disastrous. The wildfireA wildfire is an uncontrolled fire in an area of combustible vegetation that occurs in the countryside or a wilderness area. Other names such as brush fire, bush fire, forest fire, desert fire, grass fire, hill fire, peat fire, vegetation fire, and veldfire may be used to describe the same ... that devastated Fort McMurray last year reached city limits on a mild weather day, with an average temperature of 22.1 C and no precipitation, after several weeks of unseasonably warm and dry weather.

“Mild weather is not good for everything,” Van der Wiel wrote. “If you like skiing, increasing mild weather is bad. We haven’t investigated the coincidence of wild fires with mild weather, but such a link might exist and would indicate again that climate change is something the global community should try to mitigate as much as possible.”

This research is an important piece of emerging narrative about the impacts of climate change, but we must consider it in the context of all the work on climate. Prior to her work on mild weather, Van der Wiel studied extreme precipitation and floodingThe overflowing of the normal confines of a stream or other body of water, or the accumulation of water over areas that are not normally submerged. Floods include river (fluvial) floods, flash floods, urban floods, pluvial floods, sewer floods, coastal floods, and glacial lake outburst floods ... in the U.S. She has since moved to a projectProject is an intervention designed to achieve specific objectives within specified resources and implementation schedules, often within the framework of a broader program. (Glossary Monitoring and Evaluation Terms; MERG Monitoring & Evaluation Reference Group and UNAIDS) investigating climatic conditions that could negatively affect agricultureCultivation of the ground and harvesting of crops and handling of livestock, the primary function is the provision of food and feed., to determine if it’s possible to warn farmers and communities in advance of bad crop years.

Science is the most useful tool we have to adapt to climate change and avoid its worst outcomes. But it requires critical thinking and a big-picture perspective to ensure we consider all available evidence. With so many people scrolling through social media feeds for news rather than reading entire articles, facts and clarity can become elusive. It’s up to us all — media and consumers alike — to dig deeper for the full story.

By David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Climate Change and Energy Policy Analyst Steve Kux.

Published with permission from The David Suzuki Foundation.

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