10 April 2013

Consequences of the abnormal normal climate

In last Monday's note, I concluded that climate was only 'normal' from 1936-1977.  As with any science conclusion, this is not past discussion.  But, as we often do in science, let's take that part as true and see where it leads us.  If it leads us to something silly, then we have (more) reason to question our original conclusion.  On the other hand, if it leads us to things that make sense, it suggests that the original, tentative, conclusion is possibly better than we originally thought.

So, if climate were 'normal' only between that span, give or take, is there anything else that can be concluded?  Two things occurred to me pretty quickly; please do add more that you think of!  One is about psychology and the other is engineering.

The psychology angle is captured by a phrase regarding "The Golden Age of science fiction".  The comment being that the golden age is '13' -- as opposed to 1945-1955, or 'new wave', or 'cyberpunk', etc.  Namely, the defining feature of the golden age is what the reader was reading when they were about 13 years old, what was current at that time in their life, not particularly the period of the writing itself.  Applied to climate, this suggests that people who were 13 in 1936-1977 have in mind a period when the climate was 'normal' in last Monday's sense -- no real trend and just bouncing back and forth across a stable average.  That's, now, people 49-90 years old. 

The engineering side is that a huge fraction of national and international infrastructure was built between 1936 and 1977.  To the extent it wasn't built then, it was designed by engineering standards that were developed within that span (I'm guessing some -- engineers in the audience please update).  The US interstate highway system, for instance, was designed in the 1950s.  But even engineering designs of the 1990s were built for '30 year storms' that refer to tables originally written decades earlier.  This is eminently sensible if one thinks of climate as something that behaved the way it did 1936-1977.  Not so sensible if you consider climate to be something that is changing on a routine basis.

It occurs to me that the ages 49-90 observation corresponds to some degree with the polling observation that disbelief in climate change, and disbelief in human involvement in climate change, shows distinct age connection.  With age groups over 50 showing much more disbelief than those under.  It certainly captures folks like Richard Lindzen, Pat Michaels, and Fred Singer.  They did grow up / come of weather age in that climatologically unusual span.



afeman said...

Wouldn't one naively expect people who had come of age during "normal" climate to better perceive excursions from it?

Robert Grumbine said...

That's what makes it psychology rather than climatology. If we had perfect memories, and updated our perceptions regularly as new data came in, it'd be climatology.

Instead, we (I'm not immune either; it's a human thing) tend to freeze opinions on a lot of things around, say, age 13 give or take a few years. So, if climate was stable around the time you were 13, you tend to think of it like that -- even if it changes markedly. Today's hot month is balanced in memory by the hot day when you were young, plus your prior conclusion that climate doesn't really change, just a hot or cold month here or there. But we're balancing a day against a month -- as climatology this makes no sense.

An example of me doing it was on the blog here. When I was around that age (give or take a few years), Chicago set multiple all-time records for cold. Extreme days, extreme runs of consecutive cold days. In the winter. By the time I'm writing about it, 30+ years later, memory had transformed that to an exceptionally cold _year_. It wasn't. Even knowing that, I still think of Chicago as having cold winters. But you can check the data on Chicago versus, say, Washington, DC and find that although Chicago is colder in winter, it's by nowhere near as much as it once was (i.e., when I was around 13, give or take a few years).

very1silent said...

I'm not so sure that the psychology has much to do with it. The climate denial propaganda machine was initially seeded with the personnel from the tobacco-cancer denial machine. Since that seeding happened in the mid-1990s, you would have ended up with a whole lot of people born between 1936 and 1977, simply because that's who was of working age then.

Robert Grumbine said...

Thanks for not following your nickname verysilent.

I agree that's part of the explanation for individuals who were getting tobacco money, such as Fred Singer and Richard Lindzen. To have gotten on to that train, you had to have been 30+ years old, 20 years ago, or 50+ today.

But when you do a large national poll, you still see 50+ as differing from under-50. Tobacco money didn't go to _that_ many people.

very1silent said...

I agree that money and direct association with the denial propaganda machine isn't a sufficient explanation for age-based differences in views among the general public, though it is likely to explain the views of a lot of the prominent deniers. I'm still not convinced that it is about peoples' memory of how things were when they were young though.

There's a huge difference in how people of different ages obtain information. Those over 50 are (for the most part) getting information from TV and newspapers. And that piece of the media is pretty much ignoring climate, and tends to leave out the views of scientists who study climate when it does cover it.

I've been really impressed by the shifts in public opinion about homosexuality which have been brought about by the coming out campaign over the past decade. It would be really interesting to see what a "talk to your parents about climate" type campaign could do.

Kevin O'Neill said...

"How can they go on believing things that have been disproved over and over again, and disbelieve things that are well established? How can they think they are the best people in the world, when so much of what they do ought to show them they are not? Why do their leaders so often turn out to be crooks and hypocrites? Why are both the followers and the leaders so aggressive that hostility is practically their trademark?" - The Authoritarians, by Bob Altemeyer

People believe what they want to believe. And many people, when they don't know what they want to believe, look to their appointed leaders to point them in the right direction. Few of us are equipped with self-critical tools to (as Brad DeLong says) Mark Our Beliefs to Market.

I suspect that the group of Authoritarian followers described in Professor Altemeyer's psychological studies account for most of the climate change deniers.

I don't recall 'The Golden Age of Science Fiction" as a topic in any of his case studies - but surely that refers to when Philip K. Dick was writing :)

Ian A said...

One other area is insurance. The increase in weather extremes makes the historical risk tables and actuarial figures far less precise (and less accurate). Insurers hate this and will build in additional risk premium to compensate.

sidd said...

Probable maximum precipitation event estimates are used by engineers and actuaries and little old me. Lack of funding for updates. The dates on these are quite shocking.


I think the insurance companies need to fund this.


Robert Grumbine said...

Comment by jyyh:
passed this to Tamino, suggesting comparison of the temperature record against white noise distribution with a zero trend. What this looks like, purely statistically, that the deniers are wrong in saying that 'the climate has always been changing'.

Robert Grumbine said...

ian, sidd: D'oh! Forgot completely about the insurance industry, and they've long been active on climate. The sometimes downside of corporate research is, the results aren't always shared publicly. Having a better idea than your competitors of what is going to happen is worth some serious money. Some times corporations look farther ahead than this, as the insurance industry did in the 1950s to early 1960s, funding open research on climate. Thanks for the link, Sidd. 50 year old estimates probably don't do anybody any good. Most of the population of the US is covered by a 30 year old estimate (i.e., from near the end of the 'normal' span that we've left).

I guess not really on point. Authoritarian might be a good after the fact description of some people. But it doesn't explain why it's preferentially people over 50. That includes the 'flower children', the Beat generation, the 'I'm ok, you're ok' crowd, and so forth. Not cohorts notorious for being authoritarian.

PKD, on the other hand, yes, good writer. From that decade, though, I prefer Roger Zelazny.

We know before Tamino starts that white noise is not correct for climate (at any time). Temperature fluctuations are autocorrelated -- if it's warmer than usual this year, it's probably going to be warmer than usual next year as well. That gives you a red noise spectrum, which is what we see in almost all geophysical records. (I can't think of a counterexample, but maybe there's one.) He's been using AR(1), and ARMA(1,1) models, iirc. One can test against these with zero trend. It'll be interesting to see what he gets.

The folks in denial are right to say that "climate has always been changing", or at least more right than saying the opposite. Where they go astray is failing to act on their own assertion. If climate is always changing, it is absurd to make it illegal to prepare for climate change (see reality based decision making for a couple of examples).