Do we really need psychologists to explain it?CIMSS Satellite Blog.)
The other day, Chris Mooney wrote an excellent post about climate change and blizzards that’s well worth reading. In it, he attributed the public’s confusion over possible connections between huge snowstorms and global warming to a few factors.
First, he wrote, “people confuse climate and weather endlessly.” True enough.
And also this:
Psychologists studying climate communication make two additional (and related) points about why the warming-snow link is going to be exceedingly difficult for much of the public to accept: 1) people’s confirmation biases lead them to pay skewed attention to weather events, in such a way as to confirm their preexisting beliefs about climate change (see p. 4 of this report); 2) people have mental models of “global warming” that tend to rule out wintry impacts.
“Perceptions of the implications of lots of snow for the existence of climate change are like the results from a Rorschach test,” writes Janet Swim, a psychologist at Penn State who headed up an American Psychological Association task force report on psychology and climate change.
All of this sounds perfectly reasonable.
But might there be an equally important reason for confusion and doubt among the public?: Despite the certitude shown by some activists in attributing all manner of weird weather to global warming, the climate system simply IS incredibly complex and difficult to pin down scientifically — and therefore naturally confusing to non-scientists.
As NASA’s Gavin Schmidt pointed out in a recent post at Real Climate:
Attribution of extremes is hard. There are limited observational data to start with, insufficient testing of climate model simulations of extremes, and (so far) limited assessment of model projections.
If experts find this branch of research so hard, no one should be surprised that much of the general public cannot get its arms around this area of science.
Moreover, different kinds of changes play out on different timescales, further complicating the picture. This takes some explaining, so bear with me…
In the case of giant snowstorms, fairly simple physics tell us that a warmer atmosphere should hold more water vapor, and that this should fuel more intense storms.
Great in theory. Difficult and time-consuming to document in practice.
But a study published in Nature a few weeks ago represented a significant advance in the ability of scientists to do such “attribution” work. (A subscription is required to view the Nature paper, so click here for a good story from the Times about it.)
The study found that natural variability could not explain a well-documented rise in extreme precipitation from 1951 to 1999, including rain and snow, over the land areas of the Northern Hemisphere. By comparing actual observations to the output of computer model simulations, the researchers found that the observed increases in extreme precipitation could only be explained when human emissions of greenhouse gases were taken into account.
To explain this a bit more scientifically I should say that the research showed there was about a 95 percent chance that the observed increase in extreme precipitation was due to human emissions of greenhouse gases. (And just a 5 percent chance that it was due to natural variability.)
With this work, scientists have taken a large step closer to being able to nail the case for human activities contributing to an overall rise in extreme precipitation.
Or to frame this in terms of scientific falsification: With the new study, scientists still have found no holes in the theory that global warming will lead to more extreme precipitation. The theory continues to withstand rigorous testing.
Even so, non-experts certainly could be forgiven for thinking that warming might cause more RAIN, but certainly not more snow. That’s a completely logical, if not fully scientifically informed, conclusion — and I’m not sure that we have to invoke complex psychological theories to explain it.
And here’s where the timeframe problem arises: Right now, despite warming, winters in places like the Midwestern and Northeastern United States remain cold enough for heavier precipitation to fall as snow.
It simply will take some time for that situation to change — and possibly for public understanding to catch up with an incredibly complex area of science.