Linking hurricanes to climate change is harder thank you think

By Ugo Bardi

Above: the results of a Google Trends search for the term “climate change”. The recent wave of Caribbean hurricanes has had little effect on the number of searches on the Web. Most people just didn’t think that hurricanes and climate change are linked to each other.

We all live inside our specific information cocoons where we hear from sources we tend to trust.

If you, like me, live in a cocoon where it is generally agreed that human-caused climate change is real and dangerous, then you would think that the recent series of hurricanes hitting the US should have made a great impact on the public perception of the climate change threat.

The impression I had from the messages I received and what I read from my sources of information is of an onrush of excitation that made it clear to everybody sane in his/her mind that we need to act against climate change before it is too late.

Ahem, no.

This is a classic example of the working of echo chambers. Out there, in the world of the mainstream media, the link between hurricanes and climate change was occasionally mentioned but that had little or no effect on people’s perception of the issue.

Look at the Google data at the beginning of this post. You see how, in June, Trump’s announcement that the US would withdraw from the Paris agreement aroused some interest in climate and it may have pushed people to be more aware of the climate change threat.

But the hurricanes didn’t move people in the US to search for more information on climate change on the Web. Worldwide, it was the same.

So, the attempt of moving public opinion by linking the hurricanes to climate change seems to have been a major flop. Actually, it may turn out to be more than just a flop, it may backfire. Read what satirist Scott Adams said on his blog:

Last winter I saw climate skeptics (or deniers in some cases) proclaiming climate change a hoax because it was cold outside. The scientists and pro-climate-change folks mocked those poor souls for not understanding the difference between anecdotal evidence and science. You can’t determine a long term trend by looking out the window, say all scientists. And if you think you can, you’re being a big dope who doesn’t know the first thing about science.
If you don’t understand that anecdotal data in isolation is generally useless to scientists, you don’t understand anything about science. A year ago, that described a lot of climate skeptics who were looking out their windows, seeing snow, and declaring climate change a hoax.
But that was last year. This week the sides reversed. Now I keep seeing climate alarmists on social media looking at the hurricanes and declaring them strong evidence of climate change. They might be right. But if they are, it is by coincidence and not by science. Scientists say it is too early to tell. So now we have a bizarre situation in which the pro-science side is disagreeing with the scientists on their own side. That’s what confirmation bias gets you. Both sides see anecdotal evidence as real.

One problem with Scott Adams is that when he speaks about climate science he shows the same kind of total incompetence shown by the character of the pointy-haired boss in his “Dilbert” strip. But here, there is no doubt that he has a point.

Personally, I am perfectly willing to trust climate scientists when they tell me that global warming has a role in making hurricanes stronger. But I can see how most people will be confused by the idea that, no, snowstorms don’t tell us anything about global warming but, yes, hurricanes do.

To say nothing about being able to follow the concatenation of concepts that would lead them to understand that installing a solar panel in California can help people in Puerto Rico survive the next wave of hurricanes.

I can also see climate science deniers wringing their hands and telling themselves: “Now, let’s wait for the first snowstorm of this winter, and then we’ll tell those alarmists what they deserve!”

So, another day, another flop. We just don’t seem to be able to find the right way to move society toward doing something serious to stop climate change. Actually, in many cases, we seem to be perfectly able to worsen things.

So at minimum, we need to rethink what we have been doing in terms of climate communications — because it is just not working.

Ugo Bardi is Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Florence, Italy. His research interests encompass resource depletion, system dynamics modeling, climate science and renewable energy. He is a member of the scientific committee of ASPO (Association for the Study of Peak Oil) and blogs in English on these topics at “Cassandra’s Legacy”. He is the author of the Club of Rome report, Extracted: How the Quest for Global Mining Wealth is Plundering the Planet (Chelsea Green, 2014) and The Limits to Growth Revisited (Springer, 2011), among many other scholarly publications.