The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet - Heidi Cullen (2010)
Part I. Your Weather is Your Climate
Chapter 1. Climate and Weather Together
It’s better to build dams than to wait for the flood to come to its senses.
The images were stark: a foreboding gray sky overhead, a turbulent river churning by in the background, and throngs of people—men and women—racing against time to save their town. With the temperature below freezing and snow from a late spring blizzard swirling around them, the volunteers worked hurriedly but efficiently to build makeshift levees, using millions of sandbags. Stuffed into snow boots and down coats, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers tossed bags weighted with sand to each other, each bag moving along to the next person, until at last the bag took its place standing guard alongside the swollen river.
This scene took place on the banks of the Red River during March and April 2009. As the late-season storm swept through, hydrologists at the North Central River Forecast Center warned that the Red River of the North, which runs through the towns of Fargo, North Dakota, and neighboring Moorhead, Minnesota, would crest at 43 feet: 24 feet above flood stage. The situation was tense for days, with the water rising at a seemingly unrelenting rate, but the communities along the river were equally unrelenting. They bagged and tossed around the clock, working in shifts in the frigid air to try to avoid a local catastrophe. People who could not pitch in with the actual bagging helped in other ways, making food, watching kids—banding together to do the work that everyone knew needed to be done. In the end, the job required 3.5 million sandbags and more than 350,000 cubic yards of dirt. Friends and neighbors as well as complete strangers had come together to build a makeshift levee that stretched more than 20 miles.
The Red River flooding of 2009 resulted in a community-wide effort to sandbag, thanks to flood forecasts that provided lifesaving information. Communities along the Red River prepared for more than a week as the U.S. National Weather Service continuously updated the predictions. The entire community around the river as well as state and local authorities came together to use the pre- dictive information as effectively as possible. As the data changed and the severity of the problem rose, people did not sit around hoping that good intentions were enough; they came together to protect their future—even though there was uncertainty as to what exactly the river would do.
The Red River eventually crested at 40.82 feet. During the prolonged flooding, the river was above flood stage for sixty-one days. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers alone estimates that it spent about $30 million to prevent more than $2 billion in damage. And as bad as the flooding was, the worst fears of the forecasters never came true.
Even so, hydrologists from the National Weather Service said this was the highest crest in more than 120 years of records on the Red River of the North. From the initial point of melt to the peak in the Fargo-Moorhead area, they said it was the fastest a flood like this had ever occurred. The speed, along with the 20 inches of snow that fell, overwhelmed the forecast models; this is why hydrological engineers—studying the flows and peaks of the flooding—are working to refine their forecasting methods. As they work to improve the flood forecast, the Army Corps of Engineers is developing a plan for permanent flood protection for the communities that faced record flooding—because if one thing is certain, there will be a next time.
Make no mistake: global warming increases the likelihood of floods such as the Red River flood. This brings me to a central question: if you know a flood is coming, are you going to wait until the water is at your door or are you going to run to the closest riverbank and start pouring sand into a bag?
Global warming has been called the “perfect problem”—perfect in the sense that it’s hard to see and challenging to solve. It’s hard to see because its signals elude most of our evolutionary panic buttons, save one—our analytical minds. Climate scientists may have built models and issued forecasts, which include mass extinction, submerged coastlines, and chronic food and water shortages; but look outside your window, and there is no sign of a storm fitting that description.
Psychologists say that humans are genetically wired to respond to palpable threats like a stampede of wild elephants or a gun at the back of the head. It’s the abstract dangers, the ones we face in the distant future, like global warming, that are tough to wrap our arms around. I get that. I understand that looking at a forecast map for the year 2100, even with the chance of a global average temperature increase of 11°F and a 3-foot rise in global sea level, doesn’t set off the requisite alarm bells. And I understand why global warming ranked at the bottom of a list of twenty national priorities in a recent poll by the Pew Research Center.1 According to the Pew study, our collective list of concerns goes like this: the economy, jobs, terrorism, Social Security, education, energy, Medicare, health care, deficit reduction, health insurance, helping the poor, crime, moral decline, the military, tax cuts, environment, immigration lobbyists, trade policy, and global warming, in that order.
This isn’t to say Americans aren’t concerned about global warming. Several polls have made it clear that Americans get it; a majority of Americans now feel that global warming is real and that it’s caused by human activities. But their concern has done little to alter how we prioritize the risks that global warming poses. Global warming seems less urgent than things staring us in the face. Ultimately, last is still last.
Psychologists chalk up the last-place finish to all the ways that global warming fails to connect with our emotions, our experiences, and our memories. For one, psychologists point to the fact that people have a “finite pool of worry.” It’s impossible to sustain concern about global warming when other worries, like an economic collapse or a home foreclosure, dive into the pool. Another issue, called the single-action bias,2 is the human habit of taking just one action in response to a problem in situations where multiple solutions are required. For instance, buying your first compact fluorescent lightbulb or using a recycled bag seems to reduce or remove the feeling of worry or concern.
In essence, we aren’t fully capable of processing global warming in the traditional human way. So we need to find a new way to look at it, a new way to understand it and break it down.
The traditional human way works something like this. According to cognitive psychologists, we have two different systems for processing risks.3 One system is analytical. It involves evaluating data and statistics to come up with a careful internal cost-benefit analysis. It’s all science. The other system is emotional and drawn from deep personal experience and human memory. This system processes the risk and converts it into a feeling. It makes a situation personal and immediate, and that is why it works quite well in the case of stampeding wild elephants or a gun at the head. These two systems are capable of describing the same event very differently. Research suggests that although the two processing systems operate in parallel, they are both more effective when they’re able to interact. And in cases where the outputs from the two processing systems disagree, our emotions and memories usually win. The gun will always trump the numbers.
Or if the gun doesn’t trump the numbers, it messes with them. Take, for example, the stock market. It’s a classic example of the daily battle between reason and emotion. Data and statistics are fundamental to determining whether or not to buy or sell, but emotions clearly play a role, even when you least expect it. A paper published in the Journal of Finance in 2003 found a positive relationship between morning sunshine outside the stock exchange and market index stock returns that day at twenty-six stock exchanges internationally from 1928 to 1997.4 So much for strictly rational price-setting, and a strong statement about the powerful influence of the weather.
Global warming has a lot of similarities with the stock market. The long-term temperature trend, like the long-term performance of the market, is up. But weather, like day-trading individual stocks, is highly volatile. And like the stock market, global warming is a textbook example of how a disconnect between the analytical and the emotional processing systems often results in a pretty lousy risk assessment. Your brain, after careful analytic consideration, is telling you that of course long-term drought, mass extinctions, and a rising sea level are serious concerns. But your gut just isn’t feeling it. It’s too far off, too impersonal.
Consequently, many of us are still struggling to see global warming. In fact, when asked to come up with a single, specific image of what global warming looks like, 74 percent of poll respondents see only one thing: melting ice. Although nearly six in ten think global warming is making weather events like droughts and storms more frequent, far fewer connect global warming with specific recent events. In their own personal experience, only 43 percent say weather patterns in the county where they live have become increasingly unstable over the past three years. Experience plays a large role in judging risk. But most of us, especially those in the younger generation, do not yet have experiences that we associate with the threat posed by climate change and cannot bring examples, good or bad, to the table. In fact, our brain is wired to assume that the future will be similar to what we have experienced so far.5
Yet having worked at The Weather Channel, I was continually awestruck by the extent to which people rallied around a weather forecast, whether it involved sandbagging in advance of the Red River flood or evacuating in advance of Hurricane Gustav. There’s something inspiring about the way communities can pull together under extremely challenging circumstances. We’re clearly quite good at processing the risks associated with extreme weather, and this is why it’s so important for people to understand that their weather is their climate. Climate and global warming need to be built into our daily weather forecasts because by connecting climate and weather we can begin to work on our long-term memory and relate it to what’s outside our window today. If climate is impersonal statistics, weather is personal experience. We need to reconnect them.
To understand how we can link climate and weather, it helps to explain why they aren’t linked now. The short answer is time.
As climate forecasts and weather forecasts have evolved, they have been separated in the public mind because weather is concerned with the immediate whereas climate is more focused on the long term. We watch a weather report on Sunday night because we want to know what to expect during the week ahead. The climate forecast, which deals in timescales of months and years, often feels too remote and intangible (unless of course, real estate is involved). We might hear that scientists think this winter will be warmer or this summer will be hotter, but we wait to pass judgment until we can experience it for ourselves. Just as our brain is hardwired to perceive threats that are most immediate to us, we are hardwired to devote more energy to caring about the weather than to caring about the climate.
This separation between weather and climate has been reinforced by the national and local news media, which regularly devote a segment to forecasting tomorrow’s weather, but rarely say anything about the climate forecast. It’s not that the information isn’t available; it’s that the way the practice has evolved, we don’t expect a climate forecast from our news outlets. As a result, we tend to separate the broad concepts of weather and climate—to see them as vastly different ideas when in reality the only big difference between them is time.
Your daily weather forecast is a function of what is happening in the atmosphere right now. We use the conditions of today (humidity, temperature, wind speed, atmospheric pressure, etc.) to help predict the weather of tomorrow. Meanwhile, climate forecasting gives a broader context to the weather we are currently experiencing. And that context is critical. It is also evolving as a result of greenhouse gas emissions. Think of your daily weather forecast and then average it over time and space—that’s roughly what a climate forecast is communicating.
Because weather forecasting and climate forecasting focus on different timescales, their goals are not the same. Whereas weather forecasting is meant to tell you what to expect when you step outside in the morning, climate forecasting is focused on broad trends over time. Will there be a drought next summer? What is the risk of wildfire for the West? Will El Niño appear next year? Will the weather be hotter in 2050? In other words, although I can’t tell you whether it will be raining on March 1, 2050, in Fargo, North Dakota, I can say that March, on average, will be warmer and that rainfall, on average, will be more intense.
But despite their different timescales, climate and weather forecasts are focused on achieving a similar result: the means to predict the future. Of course, the question then becomes what do we do with it. The weather forecast is so ingrained in our existence that we know very well how to act on it. If we hear on the radio in the morning that it’s going to rain, we carry an umbrella. If we hear that the temperature is going to be unseasonably cool, then we pack a sweater. By definition, weather is a timescale we can’t stop. With a weather forecast, we’re working strictly on our defense.
However, with the climate forecast the necessary actions are not as straightforward, and this highlights some of the basic philosophical differences between weather and climate. I’ve come to view a long-range climate projection as an anti-forecast in the sense that it forecasts something you want to prevent. Think back to the Red River flood. Until now, we’ve been able to view extreme weather like flooding as an act of God. But science tells us that, owing to climate change, such floods will happen more often and we need to be prepared for them. I say that a climate forecast is an anti-forecast because it is in our power to prevent the forecast from happening. It represents only one possible future that could happen if we continue to burn fossil fuels as business-as-usual. The future is ultimately in our hands. And the situation is urgent because the longer we wait, the more climate change works its way into the weather, and once it’s in the weather, it’s there for good.
We are currently in a race against our own ability to intuitively trust what science is telling us, assess the risk of global warming, and predict the future. So when we look at a climate forecast out to 2100 and see temperatures upward of 11°F warmer and sea level 3 feet higher, we need to assess the risk as well as the different solutions necessary to prevent these outcomes. The challenge is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, replace our energy infrastructure, and adapt to the warming already in the pipeline. And this is the complicated part.
By responding to and trusting the climate forecast, we will prevent it from coming true. Ninety-two percent of those surveyed in a Yale/George Mason poll said the nation should act to reduce global warming. In other words, the overwhelming majority of Americans think we should trust the long-term forecast. But 51 percent of Americans said that although we have the ability to stop global warming, they weren’t sure if we actually would. They weren’t convinced we’d be able to see and act on the forecast of global warming as the residents of Fargo, North Dakota, saw and acted on the flood forecast. For the people in Fargo, the risk was personal and the forecast was lifesaving.
Most Americans believe that we will not take steps to fix climate change until after it has begun to harm us personally. Unfortunately, by that point it will be too late. The climate system has time lags. And those time lags mean that the climate system doesn’t respond immediately to all the extra greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. So, by the time you see it in the weather on a daily basis, it’s too late to fix climate change. For most people, the fact that there is uncertainty surrounding the future threat of climate change means we should hold off on any expensive fixes—specifically, actions aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from smokestacks and tailpipes—until we know more. Yet the people of Fargo, North Dakota, didn’t wait to see if their town would be flooded; instead, they saw the forecast and started sandbagging. They knew instinctively that if you wait until the water is up to your waist, it’s already too late.