Climate is everything

By Judith Curry

. . . according to the cover story of April 26 issue of Time Magazine. How have we have fooled ourselves into thinking that manmade climate change is the dominant cause of societal problems?

Some excerpts from the Time Magazine article:

From her perch in the West Wing, McCarthy has been charged by Biden with overseeing a dramatic shift in the way the U.S. pursues action on climate change. Instead of turning to a select few environment-­focused agencies to make climate policy, McCarthy and her office are working to infuse climate considerations into everything the Administration does. The task force she runs includes everyone from the Secretary of Defense, who is evaluating the climate threat to national security, to the Treasury Secretary, who is working to stem the risk that climate change poses to the financial system.

For decades, the idea that climate change touches everything has grown behind the scenes. Leaders from small island countries have pleaded with the rest of the world to notice how climate change has begun to uproot their lives, in areas from health care to schooling. Social scientists have crunched the data, illuminating how climate change will ripple across society, contributing to a surge in migration, reduced productivity and a spike in crime. And advocates and thinkers have proposed everything from a conscious move to economic degrowth to eco-capitalism to make climate the government’s driving force.

Now, spurred by alarming science, growing public fury and a deadly pandemic, government officials, corporate bosses and civil-society leaders are finally waking up to a simple idea whose time has come: climate is everything. It’s out of this recognition that the E.U. has allocated hundreds of billions of euros to put climate at the center of its economic plans, seemingly unrelated activist groups have embraced environmental goals, and investors have flooded firms advancing the energy transition with trillions of dollars. “The world is crossing the long-awaited political tipping point on climate right now,” says Al Gore, a former U.S. Vice President who won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his climate activism. “We are seeing the beginning of a new era.”

The course of climatization—the process by which climate change will transform society—will play out in the coming years in every corner of society. Whether it leads to a more resilient world or exacerbates the worst elements of our society depends on whether we adjust or just stumble through. “We are at the point where climate change means systems change—and almost every system will change,” says Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University and a longtime climate leader. “That understanding is long overdue, but I don’t think we know exactly what it means yet. It’s a moment of maximum hope; it’s also a moment of high risk.”

How climate became ‘everything’

A changing climate has been the norm throughout the Earth’s 4.6 billion year history. The Earth’s temperature and weather patterns change naturally over time scales ranging from decades to millions of years. Natural variations in climate originate in two ways. Internal climate fluctuations exchange energy, water and carbon between the atmosphere, oceans, land and ice, which changes the surface climate.  External influences on the climate system include variations in the energy received from the sun and the effects of volcanic eruptions.  Human activities also influence climate by changing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, altering the concentrations of aerosol particles in the atmosphere, and through land use and changing land cover. 

Over the past several decades, the definition of ‘climate change’ has shifted away from the broader geological interpretation. Article 1 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) defines ‘climate change’ as: 

“a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.” 

The UNFCCC thus makes a distinction between climate change attributable to human activities altering the atmospheric composition, versus climate variability attributable to natural causes.  This redefinition of ‘climate change’ to refer only to manmade climate change has effectively eliminated natural climate change from the public discussion on climate change.  Any change that is observed over the past century, on whatever time scale, is implicitly assumed to be manmade.  This assumption leads to connecting every unusual weather or climate event to manmade climate change from fossil fuel emissions. 

The UNFCCC definition of ‘climate change’ engenders two logical fallacies. The fallacy of the single cause occurs when it is assumed that there is a single, simple cause of an outcome, when in reality it may have been caused by a number of jointly sufficient causes. Climate variability and change are influenced both by natural climate processes and human activity. A jingle fallacy is based on the assumption that two things that are called by the same name capture the same construct.  ‘Climate change’ under the UNFCCC definition is a much narrower construct than climate change in the geological sense. Use of the term becomes a jingle fallacy when it is inferred that all climate change – recent and future – is manmade.

The ubiquitous jingle fallacy surrounding the UNFCC definition of climate change introduces a framing bias. Framesact as organizing principles that shape how people conceptualize an issue. Frames can direct how a problem is stated, what is excluded from consideration, what questions are relevant, and what answers might be appropriate.  A framing bias occurs when a narrow approach is employed that pre-ordains the conclusion to a much more complex problem. The narrow framing of climate change as manmade global warming has marginalized natural climate variability. This narrow framing also dominates our understanding of the relationships of humans and society with climate. An assumption is made that future climate change is controlled by the amount of manmade greenhouse gas emissions.  Regional causes of climate variability, their impacts and their local solutions are marginalized by the assumption that the causes of climate change and its solution are irreducibly global. 

The term ‘climate change’ doesn’t just connote the science of manmade global warming, but also an entire worldview of society. Hulme (2010) identifies the fallacy of climate reductionism, a form of analysis and prediction in which the interdependencies that shape human life within the physical world are correlated with climate change. Manmade climate change is then elevated to the role of the dominant predictor of societal change. Multiple possibilities of the future are effectively closed off as climate predictions assert their influence over food production, health, tourism and recreation, human migration, violent conflict, etc. Other environmental, economic and social factors that influence these societal problems become marginalized.  

An availability cascade is a self-reinforcing process of collective belief formation that triggers a self-perpetuating chain reaction: the more attention a danger gets, the more worried people become, leading to more news coverage and greater alarm. Because slowly increasing temperatures do not seem alarming, ‘availability entrepreneurs’ push extreme weather events, public health problems, human migration, etc. as being caused by manmade global warming – more of which is in store if we don’t quickly act to reduce fossil fuel emissions.  

The ever-expanding narrative of climate change entrains a range of social values into the proposed solutions. The momentum of the climate change narrative leads to claims that there is a solution to many other societal problems within the climate change cause – an example is social justice in the context of the U.S. Green New Deal.  This link acts to energize both causes, and leverages the climate change narrative to blame or attack those opposed to the separate cause.  

Climate change has thus become a grand narrative in which human-caused climate change has become a dominant cause of societal problems. Everything that goes wrong then reinforces the conviction that that there is only one thing we can do prevent societal problems – stop burning fossil fuels. This grand narrative misleads us to think that if we solve the problem of manmade climate change, then these other problems would also be solved. This belief leads us away from a deeper investigation of the true causes of these problems. The end result is narrowing of the viewpoints and policy options that we are willing to consider in dealing with complex issues such as public health, weather disasters and national security. 

And so, climate becomes everything.

This article appeared on the Climate Etc. website at https://judithcurry.com/2021/05/02/climate-is-everything/


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