Jan 082014

Certainly the climate is involved, but this does happen from time to time anyway so it’s a stretch to assign a causal relationship to this one event.

Global warming doesn’t mean it’s going to be “hot” all the time. It means there is more energy in the atmosphere and so all weather patterns will tend to be more “excited” and weather events will tend to be more violent. It also means that wind, ocean currents, and precipitation patterns may radically shift into new patterns that are significantly different from what we are used to seeing.

All of these effects are systemic in nature. They have many parts that are constantly interacting with each other in ways that are subtle and complex.

In contrast, people are used to thinking about things with a reductionist philosophy — breaking things down into smaller pieces with the idea that if we can explain all of the small pieces we have explained the larger thing they belong to. We also, generally, like to find some kind of handle among those pieces that we can use to represent the whole thing — kind of like an on-off switch that boils it all down to a single event or concept.

Large chaotic systems do not lend themselves to this kind of thinking because the models break down when one piece is separated from another. Instead, the relationships and interactions are important and must be analyzed in the context of the whole system. This kind of thinking is so far outside the mainstream that even describing it is difficult.

The mismatch between reductionist and systemic thinking, and the reality that most people are used to thinking in a reductionist way makes it very difficult to communicate effectively about large scale systems like earth’s climate. It also makes it very easy for people to draw erroneous conclusions by taking events out of context. For example: “It’s really cold today so ‘global warming’ must be a hoax!”; or “It’s really hot today so ‘global warming’ must be real!”

Some people like to use those kinds of errors to their political advantage. They will pick an event out of context that serves their political agenda and then promote it as “the smoking gun” that proves their point. You can usually spot them doing this when they also tie their rhetoric to fear or hatred since those emotions tend to turn off people’s brains and get them either nodding in agreement or shaking their heads in anger without any deeper thought.

The realities of climate change are large scale and systemic. Very few discrete events can be accurately assigned to it. The way to think about climate change is to look at the large scale features of events overall. As for this polar vortex in particular, the correct climate questions are:

  • Have these events (plural not singular) become more or less frequent or more or less violent?
  • How does the character of this event differ from previous similar events and how do those differences relate to other climate factors?
  • What can we predict from this analysis?