Thursday, 3 July 2008

Tsunami of doubt

Complaining about global warming "deniers" in the The Guardian, Tahmina Anam makes the following observation,


The scientists and campaigners have done their best. .... Al Gore has gone around the world with graphs and arresting photographs of the melting Arctic ice, proving that climate change really is happening. And, of course, there is the anecdotal evidence: everyone knows someone who has witnessed an extreme storm, or had their house flooded, or watched from a balcony as the Asian tsunami leapt from the sea.

But if, after all the messages we have received about the perils of ignorance, we remain unconvinced, it must be because of a failure of imagination. To remain in doubt about our own culpability means that we are unable to imagine an era that is dramatically different from our own.


CIF's indefatigable army of nit-pickers quickly leapt on the tsunami remark. Climate is atmospheric and tsunamis are seismic, and obviously they have no connection with one another. But then the floods that struck parts of England last year have no obvious or demonstrable connection with global warming either. What Anam is appealing to, it seems to me, is not too little imagination on the part of the sceptics, but rather an excess of imagination on hers.

The Asian tsunami is an interesting case-study in climate change folklore. Sceptics sometimes allege that that devastating event was cynically exploited by proponents of global warming to strengthen their message, even though it could not have been caused by the climate. On the other side of the argument, the sceptics themselves were blamed for making the supposed link only so as to discredit it as a "straw man". The truth is slightly more complicated. The vast majority of scientists questioned in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 tsunami denied any connection. On the other hand, some did suggest a theoretical link between climate change and seismic activity. One idea, mentioned in the India Daily of Jan 4 2004, was that the melting of permafrost at the poles could destabilise the earth's crust:

It has been observed, that during the receding ice ages in the past which means natural warming, ocean currents, Artic and Antarctic crusts’ imbalances, the tectonic movements increase. Worse is the fact that the tectonic movements increase in thrust and violent characteristics.


Patrick Wu, a geologist at the University of Alberta, has made a similar claim more recently. "What happens is the weight of this thick ice puts a lot of stress on the earth," he told the Canadian Press. "The weight sort of suppresses the earthquakes, but when you melt the ice the earthquakes get triggered."

But these are minority opinions. Most scientists who invoked global warming in the immediate aftermath of the disaster were more circumspect. Some suggested that rising sea levels would make low-lying areas more vulnerable to tsunamis. Neal Driscoll, from UC San Diego, stated that "global warming could theoretically play a role in weakening undersea slopes", thus leading to tsunamis in the future. And the British government's chief scientist, Sir David King, while not linking the tsunami with climate change, nevertheless couldn't resist exploiting it. "What is happening in the Indian Ocean underlines the importance of the earth's system to our ability to live safely," King told BBC radio. "And what we are talking about in terms of climate change is something that is really driven by our own use of fossil fuels, so this is something we can manage."

Stephen Tindale of Greenpeace, meanwhile, issued a statement at around the same time in which he asserted that "No one can ignore the relentless increase in extreme weather events and so-called natural disasters, which in reality are no more natural than a plastic Christmas tree". This was taken as an attempt to blame the tsunami on global warming. Though, of course, neither he nor King actually said such a thing.

With statements like these doing the rounds, it's not surprising that some media outlets began talking up possible connections. Nor that many people made the link themselves. In recent years, climate change has become a catch-all explanation for any unexpected meterological events. Many, most or possibly all extreme weather patterns may be the result of random fluctuations, but the human brain is not set up to appreciate randomness, preferring a bogus causal link to accepting that some things happen simply by chance. When the tsunami occurred, once the initial shock had passed, people's thoughts naturally turned to the question, Why? And the answer - global warming - was ready and waiting.

In previous eras, freak events were ascribed to the wrath of God. Sometimes they still are. The Bishop of Carlisle, Graham Dow, was widely ridiculed when he suggested that last year's floods might owe something to divine displeasure over the government's introduction of civil partnerships. "This is a strong and definite judgment because the world has been arrogant in going its own way," he said. "We are reaping the consequences of our moral degradation, as well as the environmental damage that we have caused."

But while the most Christians, at least in the west, no longer think like Dow, the need to interpret natural disaster as the result of sin remains. That's why linking the tsunami with carbon emissions is intuitively plausible, even if it is scientific nonsense.

3 comments:

valdemar squelch said...

Are you famliar with 'The Stone Tape' by Nigel Kneale? In it, a rather amusing vicar says that pollution is the only way original sin can manifest itself in a scientific age. Or words to that effect. Anyway, that seems to be your point.

As a total laygit, I have no problem with the idea of seismic events being triggered by the redistribution of weight on the earth's crust. However, so far it's been mostly sea ice that's melted, plus a few glaciers.

I assume (again, as a laygit) it would take the melting of the Greenland ice cap to do it; and if that happened, we'd not be in a position to bother out little heads about tsunamis.

David said...

I agree that there are two sides to global warming. Is it man made or the natural cycle of the planet?

What I do know is that this government is using it as an excuse to take further stealth taxes to replenish their squandered coffers.

Lil' Drummer Bwoi said...

If we actually managed to melt the permafrost at the poles (very difficult as we are in the somewhat rare position of having a south facing continent and a nothern land-surrounded ocean, which is why this world of ours is so very cold all the time) we would arguably have accomplished mankinds greatest achievement, ushering in millions of years of peace and prosperity, and not living on a flying ice-pop.