Saturday, December 17, 2016

It's Not Your Imagination

Originally published in the Westborough News on 07/01/2016

There was an interesting article in the New York Times a couple of months back with the headline “Global Warming Feels Quite Pleasant.”

The article states that “80 percent of Americans now find themselves living in counties where the weather is more pleasant than it was four decades ago.” The reason is that temperature increases have not been even. So far, winters have gotten warmer by a bit over 1 degree F per decade whereas summers have only warmed 0.13 degrees F per decade and average humidity has decreased.

If you live in a temperate part of the US closer to the coast like we do here in Westborough, what’s not to like? 

Of course, if you live in Southern California, West Virginia, South Carolina, Texas, maybe not as much.

If you think there have been more and more news stories about such disasters as flash floods, intense storms and wild fires – it is not your imagination, it’s because that is what is happening.

I have been watching these news events and decided to do a bit of digging. I went to as unbiased a source of information as I could find, the Insurance Information Institute, for some information. They had some very helpful graphs ( which show what is going on. 

The trend for severe storms has gone from roughly 30 a year in the 1980s to over 50 a year in the last decade. 

Likewise major flood events have gone from less than 5 per year in the 1980s to over 10 a year in the last decade. 

Western wild fires have increased three fold from 1970 until now and the number of fires per year is tied very closely to average annual temperatures in that region (

The saying goes in science that correlation is not causation. It could be coincidence that as the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is increases, so does the frequency of extreme weather events. 

After all, there is an astounding correspondence between the per capital consumption of mozzarella cheese and the number of awarded civil engineering doctorates per year or the number of swimming pool drownings versus the number of films Nicolas Cage has appeared in (

So why pay attention to catastrophes versus greenhouse gas concentrations and not drownings versus Nicholas Cage movies?

The answer is causation. There is no causal mechanism to make the connection between the silly correlations above, but there is one for greenhouse gases versus weather-related natural disasters.

That’s where science comes into play.

Theories in science are not hazy guesses. The throwaway line in a movie – “It’s only a theory” has always made me cringe. 

What they are, are ideas supported by a wealth of facts, which describe and PREDICT conditions in nature.

I emphasis the word “predict” because any scientific theory must make predictions that can either be tested in the lab or compared to the world at large. If the predictions are not borne out by the facts, the theory must either be rejected or modified. That’s the way science works. 

The scientific theory of human-caused climate change is based on well-known facts, the first being that carbon dioxide and methane absorb heat radiation. It makes predictions such as – global air temperatures will increase as greenhouse gas concentrations increase; the number of intense weather events will increase; the oceans will warm; drier areas will become drier; wetter areas will become wetter; glaciers will melt; sea level will rise, to name but a few. 

These predictions are exactly what we are seeing – all over the planet and these changes are happening very quickly. We are seeing changes over the course of one or two generations that are unprecedented in the 150 year instrumental weather records and as near as we can tell, unprecedented in the geologic record going back tens of millions of years.

It’s not your imagination. The question is – what are we going to do about it? Not the government, not the UN, not aliens – us. What are WE going to do about it?

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