The Big Wet

Having neglected my bloggerly duties these past six weeks (in fact, I’ve been neglecting all my duties which aren’t strictly in service of looking after my family and keeping my job), I had resolved to write something about one of the many momentous events which have taken place recently. There are many to choose from. Some topics (Pike River; Wikileaks; Foreshore and Seabed for instance) are no longer immediate; others (the re-emergence of Winston Peters, commencement of the NZ general election campaign and its forerunner the Botany by-election) are not yet sufficiently well-formed for me to quite know what to say about them yet. Yet others (notably the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, Wikileaks and the Urewera Terra trials) have been more ably dealt with by Pablo and/or so many others, such that anything I could say would be redundant. There’s already enough peoples’ two cents rattling around in the hollow urn of internet discussion. In the context of these events other things I was meaning to write about (such as the manvertising topic Pablo discussed before the break) seem a bit trivial.

Add to all of this, today there is really only one story; that an area twice the size of Texas — the canonical measure of a really big thing — is underwater in Queensland; including much of Brisbane. The coverage put out by the Australian media, and in particular the ABC, is first-rate, and the best I can do is commend it to your attention.

There is one point, however, that I don’t think has been made strongly enough: and that’s that events such as these are a consequence of climate change. While it is fashionable for climate change deniers to mock those pointing to the increasing frequency and severity of snowstorms, cold snaps, hurricanes and torrential rainfall events as evidence for ‘global warming’; implying that climate science proponents try to take everything as evidence of ‘global warming’, the fact is that the term ‘global warming’ was retired and replaced with ‘climate change’ because the thesis isn’t just that the planet will get warmer.

That’s part of it, but the events — snowfall and what not — being pointed to are not climate; they are weather. The relationship between climate and weather is a lot like the relationship between mathematics and arithmetic — indistinguishable if you don’t understand them, but fundamentally of a different order. Weather, like arithmetic, is by and large small, trivial, unarguable stuff — stuff which is more or less self-evident. It rained this much last week; 2+2=4 — whereas climate, and mathematics, are bigger, more open-ended and by definition less quantifiable. Mistaking ‘weather’ for ‘climate’ is an immensely useful rhetorical device, and one which I believe has not been sufficiently well guarded-against by those whose task it is to argue the climate change case. But even though it may not have been made clear to the degree necessary for broad public and political comprehension, this distinction is well understood by those working in the field and anyone who cares to acquaint themselves even scarcely with the material. And fundamentally the take-away is this: climate change caused by the increased quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, to the extent that it takes place, will have unpredictable flow-on effects such as increased frequency and severity of severe weather events, and not just heat waves and droughts such as ‘warming’ would suggest.

The XKCD comic above (of which some years ago, my wife bought me the t-shirt) shows the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation spectrum. This has nothing much to do with climate change, but it is a famous proof of the scientific method: a near-perfect agreement between theory and actuality which is pretty fundamental to our understanding of a bunch of stuff. Science’s only defence; the only thing which gives it any importance or makes it any use at all, is that it works. When properly applied, it predicts actual events. The Queensland floods, as well as other such events, are happening as predicted, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either ignorant, or having you on, or both. In Andrew Bolt‘s case, it’s both. Queenslanders — and others similarly impacted by such events — need neither.


12 thoughts on “The Big Wet

  1. Sort of tangential, but it struck me that all the weather is ’caused by climate change’ if it’s happening. Obviously you’re making more specific points so this doesn’t detract…

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  3. Lyndon, yeah — and by the same token weather is like the data which makes up our measured ‘climate’. So it’s not that the two are separate, just that they’re not interchangeable in any meaningful way.


  4. I’d love to know what the proportion of weather-related news stories are now versus a decade or two ago. It may be the southern hemisphere silly season right now but I was struck a few nights ago by the sheer number of weather-related stories dominating the first half of the 6pm ONE News bulletin…

  5. To put it simply, our rising greenhouse gas emissions are causing an increased rate of global warming which in turn is causing climate change which, amongst other things, is causing weather events of increasing severity and frequency such as the flooding we’re seeing now in Brisbane.

  6. Weather might be described as a micro-climate. And as for CMB radiation, I love the way it was discovered. While some team was looking for it in one part of the world, some other people were developing a radio telescope and kept getting this background static, not realising at first what it was. They thought they had not calibrated their doodad right, when they were actually tripping over cosmic radiation.

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  8. Not to mention they chased out some pigeons living in the horn, and scrapped the droppings off in case that was the source.

  9. Yeah, just read that. Hone gets it; is not out of touch. Response will be interesting. Rest of the months starting to look exciting, too.


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