On The Issue of Climate
What is Climate? What is Weather? What’s the difference?
Perhaps the simplest clarification of the two terms came from the 20th Century science fiction author Robert Heinlein:
“Climate is what you want. Weather is what you get.”
Unfortunately, much of the planet does not have a choice in deciding what it will get.
When we try to visualize our world affected by changing climate, we are often shown films and photos of polar bears searching for food in oceans with fewer and fewer chunks of shrinking ice. We hear about the contribution to climate change from clear-cutting tropical rainforests at ever increasing rates. We are shown photos of receding glaciers, reduced expanses of high-elevation snowpack and dying coral reefs.
Sometimes, the impact of this change can be just under foot at the microbial level. Both the result of and then the cause of increased amounts of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere from fungi thawing in tundra soils.
Yet, to really understand climate, you will need to dig a lot deeper into the science itself.
“Weather is what conditions of the atmosphere are over a short period of time, and climate is how the atmosphere “behaves” over relatively long periods of time. That is, weather is basically the way the atmosphere is behaving, mainly with respect to its effects upon life and human activities. The difference between weather and climate is that weather consists of the short-term (minutes to months) changes in the atmosphere. Most people think of weather in terms of temperature, humidity, precipitation, cloudiness, brightness, visibility, wind, and atmospheric pressure, as in high and low pressure.”
The assignment of “cause and effect” to climate change is perhaps one of the most controversial, environmental topics being debated. The costs are high if we undertake mitigation processes to control natural cycles that really are independent of human activities. The costs are high if we are wrong about the role humans play in the rise of atmospheric “greenhouse gasses” and continue to delay taking action.
The odds are not good on either option.
I like this excerpt from the Executive Summary of a UN Report to help put climate into proper perspective.
“Development gains are increasingly at risk from a number of pressures, including climate change. In specific locales around the globe, adverse changes are already being observed in the amount, intensity, frequency and type of precipitation, resulting in drought, floods and tropical storms. Disaster risk is growing as a result of unplanned urbanisation, persistent poverty and ecosystem degradation. These risk drivers will be exacerbated by climate change.
‘Changes in the climate threaten to undermine the resilience of poorer countries and their citizens to absorb loss and recover from disaster impacts, such as through decreases in agricultural productivity, water and energy stress, and increasing incidence of disease.”
Adaptation to Climate Change: Linking Disaster Risk Reduction and Insurance
United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction Secretariat (UNISDR)
At this time in our short human history, we have a much better understanding of species-interdependence. There is little question that species’ stability is being threatened. Some scientists suggest that each period in our planet’s history is represented by large numbers of species’ extinctions. Some claims suggest that many species are gone before they have even been discovered! Today, the most obvious happens to be polar bears.
Climate modelling is very complex science offering controversial interpretation. Seasonal variability in weather patterns often provide graphic experiences from the consequences to human communities – whether in the United States, or in Spain, or in the Maldive Islands.
Perhaps these changes are not anthropogenic but natural cycles. Maybe there really are natural cycles between climate warming and climate cooling – that the past 12,00 years of climate stability is about to shift – and not necessarily in our favor. Our planet is moving into a period of peak-oil. Threats to our global freshwater reserves may be driving us towards a period of peak-freshwater. Maybe now we are finally reaching the point of peak population.
Soon, perhaps very soon, the cause of and effect from these uncertainties may become crystal clear. The unresolved question may continue to haunt humanity well into the future: what proportion of these environmental anomalies are natural and what proportion can be attributed directly to human activity? It may be too late if we wait too long to learn the correct answer.