Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity
The new Washington
Post Weather website
Jump to CWG's
Latest Full Forecast
Outside now? Radar, temps
and more: Weather Wall
Follow us on Twitter (@capitalweather) and become a fan on Facebook
Posted at 10:15 AM ET, 12/ 8/2010

Climate change can be a conversation killer

By Andrew Freedman

It's that time of year again - the holiday party season. Time to put on your favorite ugly holiday sweater, and carry on awkward banter with coworkers, friends and relatives.

For an ordinary individual who works in a relatively noncontroversial field, holiday parties and other social events can be relatively carefree and fun occasions.

But for those who work in a climate science-related discipline, these days such events are more like a series of conversational minefields. Step on one, and you'll be stuck arguing about the significance of uncertainties in the surface temperature record with your uncle who thinks Glenn Beck is not only the wisest person on the planet, but also the funniest, and who dismisses global warming by comparing it to the Y2K scare.

Likely reflecting the absurdly polarized state of climate politics, I've found myself in increasingly awkward situations at parties recently - accosted by relatives, friends, acquaintances and total strangers about climate science and policy. I don't know what it is about climate change that makes people want to interrogate me as if I were the sole keeper of all climate knowledge in the world, and am personally scheming to make the globe warmer.

People: I am not Gargamel, the villain from the Smurfs who came up with a weather-controlling device (although that was my favorite episode).

I don't want to discourage folks from being curious about climate change. But in the spirit of enjoying the holiday season, I'm considering telling new people I meet on the party circuit that I'm in the importing/exporting business (extra points for anyone that can guess what TV show that one is from), just to avoid uncomfortable, heated conversations about climate change.

To help those of you who may be in similar predicaments, here's a list of my most dreaded, most frustrating, and most welcome climate-related questions to be asked at a social gathering (holiday or otherwise), and two ways to respond to them. One is the way I actually respond. The other is the way I wish I could respond if I weren't worried about social norms and basic human decency.

Most dreaded, and most frequently asked, question: "So, do you believe in global warming?"
My typical answer: "It's not a matter of 'belief,' but rather an examination of empirical evidence. The vast preponderance of data indicates that the world is warming rapidly, and the fingerprints of manmade greenhouse gas emissions have been found all over this warming trend. Data from the land, air and sea all show a warming world, with major changes already taking place in biological systems and landscapes, from melting Arctic sea ice to glacial retreat in Glacier National Park."
What I wish I could say: "I 'believe' that climate change is not a matter of personal belief, but rather of scientific evidence and theory, developed over hundreds of years of following the scientific method. After all, rising thermometers don't care about my beliefs, nor do melting glaciers and sea ice. They are facts, whether I choose to believe in them or not."

Most frustrating question I've received: "I thought those climategate emails showed that global warming was just a conspiracy put forth by scheming scientists?"
My typical answer: "No, those stolen emails showed that climate scientists are human beings and were guilty of bad-mouthing those who don't believe that burning fossil fuels like coal and oil are warming the planet. The scientists may have deleted some emails they shouldn't have, but the messages didn't disprove the temperature record or the long-held theory that greenhouse gases are a key regulator of the climate system. They did, however, cause a PR disaster for mainstream climate scientists."
What I wish I could say: "No, climate change is still for realz. I bet you didn't even read those emails anyway. What's your email password, by the way? I bet I could selectively steal and release a trove of emails from your account that would implicate you in all sorts of wrongdoing. In fact, while we've been talking, that's exactly what I did. Oh man. This doesn't look good for you at all. Good luck. You're going to need it."

Most welcome question(s): "I hear so many conflicting things about climate change. I can't make sense of it all. Are we really going to be screwed by the year 2100? And where can I find reliable information about it?"
My typical answer - which is also what I wish I could say:"Yeah, this is a subject that can be very confusing, especially if you're just reading a couple of stories here and there about the latest climate news and research. No, we're not necessarily going to be 'screwed' by 2100, but the vast majority of climate scientists say that the world is likely to be much warmer by then, unless dramatic emissions cuts are undertaken very soon."

"This won't cause a global apocalypse or anything, but it will require a lot of planning for how we'll adapt our coastlines, infrastructure, and lifestyle to be more resilient to rising sea levels, altered weather patterns, and more frequent heat waves and precipitation extremes. I'd recommend first reading up on climate science from a reliable, nonpartisan source: such as the book 'Climate Change: Picturing the Science,' or 'The Discovery of Global Warming,' before delving into the weeds on the topic."

I'm curious to find out what your most frequent climate change questions are - either those asked of you, or that you ask others. I'll do my best to try and answer them, with a bare minimum of sarcasm, or direct you to another person who can do so better than I can.

The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.

By Andrew Freedman  | December 8, 2010; 10:15 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Freedman, Latest, News & Notes, Satire  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Forecast: Windy chill today, just chilly tomorrow; new cold blast next week
Next: A white Christmas for Santa?

Comments

Most of my friends and relatives know better than to ask me anything about climate change since they have mostly heard and believe the media's side on lots of issues like that. The main reason is that the "precautionary principle" seems to make the most sense to people; even if there's just a slight chance of catastrophe we need to worry about it. So my adamant views (consistent for the last decade) that this is not a problem (i.e. no chance of catastrophe whatsoever) aren't very convincing. It's hard to be adamant and convincing about a non-problem whereas it is much easier if you have an exciting end-of-the-world scenario with a made-up 1% "probability".

OTOH, I get asked about it at work and social and civic events. There I tend to have a reasonable discussion and can answer questions readily from both believers and skeptics. I had a long conversation recently with a believer and corrected a number of his misconceptions (e.g. anthropogenic water vapor, alt energy costs, media partiality, etc) Also at the flea market with the some of the most down to earth people I know (mostly skeptics).

The basic answer is whatever works. Answering with science is great although it takes long explanations to explain all the various factors and details that often get left out. Politics is easier to explain so sometimes I use that. In the end it is a political battle anyway.

Posted by: eric654 | December 8, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

Andrew, Because of your condescending and sarcastic tone, I do not wish to engage in a conversation with you.

Posted by: chernobill1 | December 8, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

Just read an article the other day about global warming causing ocean levels to DROP in the Northern Hemisphere. I think even the most ardent skeptic would agree that spewing billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere is probably going to have some effects, but it also seems as though the most hyper-alarmist should be able to acknowledge that there is nothing close to certainty in predicting the actual effects and their timing. Using these 2 facts that 90% of us can agree on it seems like we could all agree to pursue a gradual shift away from fossil fuels, while leaving the apocolyptic predictions to the nut jobs.

Posted by: chrissolo9 | December 8, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

eric,
we inhabit opposite, or perhaps obverse, worlds. most of my relatives think AGW is some kind of one-world-government conspiracy... we've all done just about all the talking/arguing about it we can, and now just laugh each other off and move on to talking about the redskins or something...

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | December 8, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

Walter, I would suggest trading relatives, but agreement (especially among NWO types) can be even more awful than disagreement.

Posted by: eric654 | December 8, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

And change your name to Art Vandelay? Haha, great Seinfeld episode(s). I do believe the import/export thing came up on a few different occasions but I could be mistaken.

After our DC winter last year (and the cold snap we're experiencing now) my family makes the comment "How's that global warming working out for you?" I, of course, have to point out that the term "global warming" may be a little misleading and go into explaining the temperature rise of the earth can create havoc and chaos in weather patterns.

On another note, holidays are a difficult time for a lot of us who are well-educated and in tune with the injustices of the world. Knowledge in a specific topic -- be it vegetarian-/veganism, blood diamonds, sustainable transportation, corporate agribusiness, environmental impacts of resource extraction, privatization of water resources, labor/workers' rights, political sovereignty, etc. -- almost always puts one is a difficult position with family/acquaintances that want to know more or want to voice an opinion regardless of how ignorant it may be. (Yes, the Glenn Beck/Sarah Palin fan clubs are subject to a lot of misinformation. Feel bad for them.)

Probably why I just don't talk much about "serious" topics unless it comes up. One that comes up at EVERY holiday is the fact that I'm vegetarian. Number one question: Why?

Posted by: mbegin | December 8, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

My usual response, admittedly snarky, is "Yes, what if we build a cleaner, less polluted, more sustainable earth for our children and grandchildren for nothing!"

A few years later I saw the cartoon. Made me happy.

Posted by: vnangia | December 8, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

walter: I find it unfortunate that climate change is a topic to be avoided, because it can get so uncomfortable to talk about? I do the same thing - move on to a topic with more agreement. But it's sad that respectful discourse has broken down so much on this issue. (Also sad: the Redskins).

chernobill1 - my sarcasm is directed at the situation that exists today, in which polite conversations about climate change seem to be impossible even in otherwise pleasant situations. I was not trying to make fun of anyone or any group in particular. (You should be aware, btw, that someone from, say, Ukraine, might find your username to be offensive. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_disaster)

Posted by: afreedma | December 8, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

Then...there's some evidence that the global warming phenomenon might actually be COOLING OFF our portion of the world rather substantially [via Greenland blocks, for example].

A few Russian scientists maintain that diminishing ice in the White Sea and Kara Sea [great for Russians who desire more ice-free port facilities] creates feedback which makes European winters colder--this seems to be happening before our eyes.

Right now, the prevalence of Arctic outbreaks tends to encourage the global-warming skeptics, even if the general scientific evidence goes against them. We DO seem to be getting greater weather extremes, both in summer and winter, though this also happened during the Dust Bowl era.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | December 8, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

I try and avoid talking about climate with anybody because it depresses me.

I would much rather point out that the Wikileaks tell a sadder tale about how our gas money goes straight into Bin Laden's pockets and the sea floor of the Gulf is a thick layer of black death.

Then I make a joke about not lighting the candles near the sink to prevent the house from blowing up from the natural gas seeping into the well.

Then I finish with "Bomb Iran", as we toast another year of occupation and theft of the 3rd world oil for the bargain basement price of a few thousand soldiers.

Merry Christmas

Posted by: ender3rd | December 8, 2010 2:56 PM | Report abuse


Most frustrating question I've received: "I thought those climategate emails showed that global warming was just a conspiracy put forth by scheming scientists?"

My (long-winded) answer to that question goes along the lines of:

Many of the emails express the scientists' frustration with the publication of "skeptical" papers that contained freshman c-student errors, papers that were then used as political weapons against those scientists.

And yes, I've read a couple of those "skeptical" papers. They contained errors that an undergraduate student would be seriously penalized for; yet somehow the reviewers either missed or ignored those very obvious and basic blunders. The real scandal is that the reviewers/editors approved the publication of those lousy "c-student" papers in the first place!

Imagine that there were several National League baseball umpires who kept calling bean-balls as strikes. Don't you think that the managers of the teams with the beaned batters would start calling for the umpires' removal? Would you be surprised if the managers trash-talked those umpires in private emails?

Well, that's exactly what the situation was with the so-called "climategate" scientists. The scientists were quite upset that journal reviewers/editors approved papers that wouldn't pass muster as undergraduate term-papers. The reviewers who approved those "skeptical" papers were essentially calling bean-balls as strikes.

So it wasn't a matter of censorship; it was a matter of professionalism!

Posted by: caerbannog | December 8, 2010 8:10 PM | Report abuse

Andrew -- thanks for the response, but I resent your (uninformed) reading of motives into my choice of username (I happen to be of Ukrainian descent). I see parallels in the climate debate -- people (on both sides) tend to dismiss the arguments of others by making unwarranted assumptions about their motivations, intelligence, etc. Which side (if any) do you think I'm on?

Posted by: chernobill1 | December 8, 2010 8:13 PM | Report abuse

Andrew, I know exactly what you mean.

I often tell people I'm "a geophysicist" when I'm not relishing a fight or it would be inappropriate for me to be the center of attention. I mumble about computers and acoustic signals a bit if pressed, and let them think I'm a math geek who supports oil exploration. Oddly, that rarely leads to controversy.

I don't know of any other field which reliably attracts so much unpleasant conversation. If I said I was an oncologist or a mortician, people would just change the subject.

Posted by: mtobis | December 9, 2010 1:06 AM | Report abuse

No matter what the prevailing or popular assumptions might be at any given moment, I have still not seen any evidence which indicates current climate variations are beyond what has been recorded throughout natural history.

The notion behind emissions cuts is a fallacy at best, and while I agree with the action in terms of cleaning up our polluted atmosphere, I absolutely disagree with the stated premise of AGW reduction. A neighbor and good acquaintance of mine is a well respected climatologist with the USGS, and he frankly told me that we could cease production of every single man-made emission overnight, yet it wouldn't put a halt to anything in terms of our Earth's climate.

As for the cold winters, look at Alaska right now, where the Interior is currently experiencing what would be considered extreme for mid-January, let alone early December! In the past few years as well, they've experienced their normal severe cold snaps over longer-than-average time spans (-40 F. Lows for an entire month, as opposed to the typical one-to-two weeks). The Arctic region was originally hypothesized to be warming at a considerably quicker rate than the rest of the Globe, but this isn't such a clear-cut case, obviously. Even when we take other regions of the World into perspective, the Winters have still brought forth cold snaps of well below-average temperatures (Look at South America, where fish were freezing to death as far North as the Amazon this past Summer).

The bottom line is that enough evidence currently exists, which completely contradicts the AGW theory. While I was once a staunch proponent of the theory, I am not so anymore. Yes, I do keep an open mind, and if the aforementioned naturally understood climatic variances are exceeded, then I will yet again readjust my stance. Until such an occurrence, however, I will continue to maintain my skepticism of AGW.

Posted by: TheAnalyst | December 9, 2010 4:45 AM | Report abuse

No matter what the prevailing or popular assumptions might be at any given moment, I have still not seen any evidence which indicates current climate variations are beyond what has been recorded throughout natural history.

The notion behind emissions cuts is a fallacy at best, and while I agree with the action in terms of cleaning up our polluted atmosphere, I absolutely disagree with the stated premise of AGW reduction. A neighbor and good acquaintance of mine is a well respected climatologist with the USGS, and he frankly told me that we could cease production of every single man-made emission overnight, yet it wouldn't put a halt to anything in terms of our Earth's climate.

As for the cold winters, look at Alaska right now, where the Interior is currently experiencing what would be considered extreme for mid-January, let alone early December! In the past few years as well, they've experienced their normal severe cold snaps over longer-than-average time spans (-40 F. Lows for an entire month, as opposed to the typical one-to-two weeks). The Arctic region was originally hypothesized to be warming at a considerably quicker rate than the rest of the Globe, but this isn't such a clear-cut case, obviously. Even when we take other regions of the World into perspective, the Winters have still brought forth cold snaps of well below-average temperatures (Look at South America, where fish were freezing to death as far North as the Amazon this past Summer).

The bottom line is that enough evidence currently exists, which completely contradicts the AGW theory. While I was once a staunch proponent of the theory, I am not so anymore. Yes, I do keep an open mind, and if the aforementioned naturally understood climatic variances are exceeded, then I will yet again readjust my stance. Until such an occurrence, however, I will continue to maintain my skepticism of AGW.

Posted by: TheAnalyst | December 9, 2010 4:47 AM | Report abuse

Andrew,

You can really stop them with this one:

Santa's workshop sits on Arctic Ocean ice. By 2030 or earlier it is expected there will be no Arctic ice in the summer months.

Global warming will put Santa out of business.

See: http://bit.ly/fWCG1b

On a more serious note just hand them the Scientific Guide to Global Warming Skepticism which can be downloaded here:

http://bit.ly/gWWVFI

Posted by: ProfMandia | December 9, 2010 6:26 AM | Report abuse

andrew,
it's not so much that it's uncomfortable, but just that it degenerates into "my experts say this"... oh yeah... well "my experts say this" and "f*** al gore and/or nancy pelosi"...

it's indeed a shame.

TheAnalyst,
it's cold in alaska you say? right now, it's cold here in d.c. too! bbbbrrrrr. you say some places have had cold snaps in other places too?

from: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/?report=global&year=2010&month=10

# For January–October 2010, the global combined land and ocean surface temperature was 0.63°C (1.13°F) above the 20th century average of 14.1°C (57.4°F) and tied with 1998 as the warmest January–October period on record.
# The global average land surface temperature for the period January–October was the second warmest on record, behind 2007.
# The global average ocean surface temperature for the period January–October tied with 2003 as the second warmest on record, behind 1998.

now, of course the earth has been warmer in the past than it is right now. the difference is this is the first time this warmth was caused by humans...

is it gonna be good/bad/neutral? hard to say. scientists are still trying to convince people it's even warming. certainly many species will go extinct. of course we've been killing off species for a while now - so global warming's not the only culprit there.

on the grand geologic scale, a warmer earth has been accompanied by greater biodiversity, so eventually, in a few tens of thousands to a few hundred thousand years we may indeed be glad we warmed the climate...

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | December 9, 2010 9:19 AM | Report abuse

A picture to depict 30 years of temperature, measured by satellite: http://www.drroyspencer.com/wp-content/uploads/UAH_LT_1979_thru_Nov_10.gif

It matches up pretty well with the NOAA data posted by Walter. Also shows graphically the two El Ninos, one really large one in early 1998 and the less large on early 2010. Note the running average peak is basically the same meaning we have warmed 0.1 or 0.2 degrees in 10 years (because the 1998 was a warmer El Nino). We'll know a little better one we get into the current La Nina. Will we dip down to 0.2? In that case we would be about 0.2 degrees higher in 10 years.

Posted by: eric654 | December 9, 2010 10:07 AM | Report abuse

eric, thanks for the post. you're my favorite skeptic.

i wonder how long spencer will keep displaying that graph... since it seems to me like the line's not gonna go below 0...

is that dip around 2008 a la nina cooling?

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | December 9, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse

eric, re spencer's graph:
i remember seeing somewhere (sorry i can't recall where) that spencer recently "adjusted" that graph to make the 1998 warming warmer - so as to keep the most current el nino below that one. they showed the old one and the adjusted one and sure enough he had move the 2008 one up. do you know anything about this? was there a valid reason to adjust that 1998 one upward recently?

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | December 9, 2010 10:37 AM | Report abuse

Walter, likewise you are my favorite global warming believer. Except for SteveT of course. I hope that Spencer keeps the same scale and running average. I heard it was changed once but changed back? Yes, 2008 was La Nina http://www.cpc.noaa.gov/products/analysis_monitoring/ensostuff/ensoyears.shtml

Posted by: eric654 | December 9, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

Walter, the best I could find was comment #9 here http://climateprogress.org/2010/02/16/noaa-warmest-january-on-record-in-both-satellite-records/ where the poster said that Spencer switched from a 13 month running average to a 25 month. So now I guess he has switched back since it is showing 13 months?

Posted by: eric654 | December 9, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

eric,
i'm not talking about him moving the "0" line around or adjusting any scales, i'm talking about him actually moving the 1998 peak higher - seemingly to keep the "recent cooling" myth alive.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | December 9, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

chernobill1: You see parallels to what in the climate debate? To Chernobyl? Huh?

Sincerely, Three Mile Island.

Posted by: afreedma | December 9, 2010 11:38 AM | Report abuse

hhmm... eric, i din't see your most recent post before i posted mine. it could have been something like poster #9 describes. the specific instance i'm thinking of was a case where the poster/webmaster/whoever-it-was gave links to both graphs: before and after the adjustment.

in any case the point of this poster/webmaster/whoever-it-was was that spencer had done this not based on any scientific/mathematic principle, but to make sure 2009/2010 stayed below 1998.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | December 9, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

hey! did you here the one where glenn beck, rush limbaugh, nancy pelosi and harry reid are in a row boat?


it goes, uhh, umm, well, I forget the rest....but you were issued from a brothel!....ahahahahahahahaha....something like that, merry christmas!

Posted by: OldSalt8 | December 9, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

With Republicans, I usually just say, "Trust me, I read scientific reports all day and climate change is definitely happening. But even if it wasn't, I care about this issue because I'm sick of sending my taxpayer dollars overseas to pay for foreign oil."

Posted by: sh17 | December 9, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

eric,
even though my relatives are totally wrong about politics and climate change, i wouldn't trade 'em for anything...

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | December 10, 2010 1:36 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2012 The Washington Post Company