Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Perspective

A smoking planet

At the U.N. climate negotiations in Warsaw that ended Friday, the lead Philippine delegate, Yeb Sano, made an emotional plea: "Typhoons such as Haiyan and its impacts represent a sobering reminder to the international community that we cannot afford to procrastinate on climate action."

But was Sano's statement consistent with the science?

Most of the scientists who have been asked that question in recent days have replied with dutiful statements that sound like "no." No single event can be attributed to climate change. No trends can yet be clearly detected above the noise of natural variability — to indicate the increases in tropical cyclone intensity that we expect global warming to bring.

These statements are factually correct. But Sano is right too.

The climate is warming because of human-created emissions of greenhouse gases. Scientists can say that much easily, without hedging.

How does this warming influence extreme weather events? Because climate is the average, and extreme events are, by definition, anything but average, that is a more complicated question. But it isn't quite as complicated as scientists tend to make it.

Consider the relationship between cancer and smoking. (Some of the most prominent and influential climate-change deniers were also, decades ago, deniers of the harmful effects of cigarettes.)

Any individual cancer, on its own, can't be conclusively proved to be caused by smoking. You can get cancer without smoking: from asbestos or radon or from other people smoking in your home or workplace. The relationship between smoking and cancer is statistical; it becomes clear in the aggregate. Other factors might have played roles in each individual case. In that, it's like greenhouse warming and extreme weather events.

To make the analogy a little better, imagine we don't know everything we need to know. Did the smoker have a genetic predisposition to cancer, or live in a place with bad air pollution? Say we don't know. Then we really can't conclusively identify smoking as the predominant cause.

At some point, though, a causal link can become too strong to deny. Today, if we see a two-pack-a-day smoker, who started smoking in her teens, get lung cancer in her 40s, we feel confident in saying that the cigarettes probably caused it.

But this analogy overstates the case of Haiyan and climate. So instead, imagine a patient who smokes only a couple of cigarettes a day and then, in his 60s, gets a disease that has been linked somewhat convincingly to smoking but also to a range of other factors. Let's say the patient gets heart disease. Let's also say the patient is sedentary, overweight, has high cholesterol and eats fatty food.

Now, if you're that patient's doctor, you might not focus too much on the smoking, relative to the other factors. In that sense, the doctor is a bit like the weather forecaster, who is more focused on the specific events under way now. Global warming isn't a big factor in any single weather system, or even any individual year's worth of weather, and it may be reasonable for the forecaster to ignore it.

But let's say you're an epidemiologist. The patient dies, and a reporter asks you: Did smoking kill him? Let's say you live in a time, like the 1960s, when the scientists who are studying the problem have uniformly concluded that smoking kills, but a large fraction of the population (including many members of Congress) doesn't believe it, because of a disinformation campaign funded by tobacco companies.

Do you focus on the uncertainty? Or, recognizing that part of what the reporter is asking is, "Is smoking really a serious problem?" do you look for a way to say, "Yes, it is"? Do you say, perhaps, that this person's death is one more example of what we should expect if we keep smoking?

Isn't that what Yeb Sano said?

Yet when we emphasize the uncertainty of climate change, we appear to justify a course of no action on climate.

And the New York Times starkly framed the consequences of pursuing that path:

From the time a scientific consensus emerged that human activity was changing the climate, it has been understood that the nations that contributed least to the problem would be hurt the most. Now, even as the possible consequences of climate change have surged — from the typhoons that have raked the Philippines and India this year to the droughts in Africa, to rising sea levels that threaten to submerge entire island nations — no consensus has emerged over how to rectify what many call "climate injustice."

So instead, we might focus on the reality of the threat that warming poses, even though we can't say with any certainty that it caused the particular case in front of us. We might focus on the fact that we expect warming to cause exactly this type of extremely intense typhoon to occur more often — as well as a range of other harmful and irreversible consequences, some of them quite certain.

Then we might be seen as overreaching. Saying those things, when we were asked only about Haiyan, implies a link that we can't justify. Scientists are trained not to overreach.

But which is worse? At present, it seems that the human race stands little risk of overreacting to global warming but a great risk of underreacting.

So we're with Yeb Sano. Haiyan represents a sobering reminder to the international community that we cannot afford to procrastinate on climate action. And uncertainty is not an excuse for inaction.

Adam Sobel is an atmospheric scientist and professor at Columbia University. His book on "Superstorm Sandy" will be out next year. Naomi Oreskes is a professor of the history of science at Harvard University and the co-author of "Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming."

© 2013 Los Angeles Times

 
Comments
PolitiFact: How trustworthy are the polls, more than a year after the 2016 election?

PolitiFact: How trustworthy are the polls, more than a year after the 2016 election?

Over the past year, political professionals have been picking over the pre-election polling data to figure out whether the polls failed to predict Donald Trumpís upset victory over Hillary Clinton.In many peopleís minds, the polls were flat wrong in ...
Published: 01/09/18
Updated: 01/11/18

Five interesting facts

2 hoursis how long the power was out last week for the CES, the consumer electronics show, in the Central Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center. The biggest electronics show of the year couldnít do much without a key ingredient: electricity. The ca...
Published: 01/08/18
Updated: 01/12/18
Perspective: Two dying memoirists wrote best-sellers about their final days. Then their spouses fell in love.

Perspective: Two dying memoirists wrote best-sellers about their final days. Then their spouses fell in love.

By Nora KrugSAN MATEO, Calif. ó The literary pairing was inevitable.When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithiís memoir of his final years as he faced lung cancer at age 37, was published posthumously, in 2016, to critical acclaim and commercial success...
Published: 01/08/18
Updated: 01/12/18

Perspective: Why do we get so itchy when we canít use our smartphones?

Americans spend a lot of time on their smartphones. But what can we learn about the connected state of mind by observing what happens when we canít use our devices?While much has been written about the effects of using our phones, from worries about ...
Published: 01/08/18
Updated: 01/11/18
Perspective: Oprah, donít do it

Perspective: Oprah, donít do it

PARIS ó I miss a lot of must-see TV on this side of the Atlantic. But by the time Iíd dropped off my daughter at school Monday morning, it was impossible not to notice how many people in my social media feeds felt something politically significant ha...
Published: 01/08/18
Updated: 01/11/18
Perspective: The systematic crushing of a #MeToo pioneer

Perspective: The systematic crushing of a #MeToo pioneer

Eight decades ago, Patricia Douglas made nationwide headlines, upstaging even the wedding of the former king of England and the American double-divorcťe Wallis Simpson. Then, just as suddenly, she vanished, hounded into exile by Hollywoodís most omni...
Published: 01/05/18
Updated: 01/11/18
Florida Insiders assess the #MeToo, post-Jack Latvala era in Tallahassee

Florida Insiders assess the #MeToo, post-Jack Latvala era in Tallahassee

Infidelity. Snooping private investigators. Big money. Conflicting political ambitions. Sexual harassment. The #MeToo movement. Donald Trump. Paranoia. And the interests of 20 million Floridians.With these issues looming over Floridaís 2018 legislati...
Published: 01/05/18

Romano: Terms limits are for voters who donít trust themselves

Happy 25th anniversary, Florida.Now, letís talk about a divorce.Seriously, this arrangement is no longer working. To be perfectly honest, itís never worked at all.Iím talking about Amendment 9, which Florida passed with great exuberance 25 years ago....
Published: 12/27/17
Updated: 01/04/18
A Little Perspective: Interesting news and notes from around the world

A Little Perspective: Interesting news and notes from around the world

Forget baby showers. Thereís a proposal to give every newborn in the United States a "Baby Bond" account with somewhere between $500 to $50,000 in cash. Neither the kids nor their parents would be able to touch the money until the child turned 18. Th...
Published: 12/26/17
Updated: 01/12/18
One more time to revive Florida Forever before itís Florida Never

One more time to revive Florida Forever before itís Florida Never

n years past, the Florida Legislature has grappled with such major environmental issues as saving the Everglades, halting damaging releases from Lake Okeechobee and managing the stateís runaway growth.This year, though, you could say that the big env...
Published: 12/22/17
Updated: 01/04/18