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Posted at 12:30 PM ET, 03/07/2011

Should global warming send us to the bunker?

Last Sunday, the Washington Post ran a provocative essay on the front page of the “Outlook” section by climate activist Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. In it, Tidwell reveals the lengths to which he is going to prepare himself and his family for what he sees as the now inevitable consequences of climate change. For example, he is stockpiling food, testing guns, and invested in an emergency generator - all in an effort to stave off social unrest that he sees coming down the pike due to climate change-related extreme weather events.

The essay is surprising - and completely misleading - in two main respects.

First, Tidwell never mentions the fact that there are a plethora of options available to national, state and local governments - not to mention families - to help cushion the potential impacts from climate change. This is actually an entire, growing field within climate policy, known as climate change adaptation (slowing manmade climate change or stopping it entirely falls into the “mitigation” category).

Given that society is already experiencing some impacts from climate change, such as an enhanced likelihood of heavy precipitation events and sea-level rise, increased attention is being directed to adaptation efforts. The Obama administration, for example, has directed the federal government to factor climate change impacts into planning for everything from national parks management to constructing new infrastructure projects, and established a climate change adaptation task force to coordinate efforts.

Tidwell, however, seems to be taking adaptation to the extreme, while claiming to be a climate change “realist.”

“I coach Little League and go to church on Sundays and contribute to a 401(k). I’m normal,” Tidwell writes. “But wouldn’t even a level-headed person want to be ready to defend his family if climate chaos goes to the max?”

Yes, a level-headed person should be ready to protect his or her family. However, the way to deal with climate change is not by putting bars on your windows and investing in firearm training, but rather by factoring climate change into more reasoned decision-making. Thus, rather than buying a beachfront home, you might consider living further inland due to the expected effects of sea-level rise. Rather than saving money by not purchasing flood insurance, you might fork over some extra cash in light of scientific findings that climate change has tipped the odds in favor of heavy precipitation events.

As Dan Sarewitz, a professor of science policy at Arizona State University, wrote in response to Tidwell’s essay: “Societies actually have abundant tools at their disposal for reducing vulnerability to weather and climate - building codes, land-use planning, insurance programs, poverty-reduction polices, and so on - and much capacity for wielding those tools more effectively, should they focus on doing so. Sending families into their basements is not on that list (except during tornadoes!).”

Instead of discussing smart ways to reduce the impacts of climate change, Tidwell has skipped about a gazillion steps, and gone straight into a bunker mentality - quite literally. I highly doubt this will be productive for the climate movement he is a part of, but more important to me is the question of whether it is scientifically justified.

This brings me to the second key flaw in Tidwell’s essay, and it is one that should not have slipped past the Post’s editors. Several times in his piece, Tidwell claims or strongly implies that recent extreme weather events were caused by climate change. Here is what he says about severe thunderstorms in the Washington area last summer:

It wasn’t the wildfires that blackened much of Russia last summer that led me to buy my portable generator, nor the unspeakable rains in Pakistan that inundated nearly a quarter of that country. It was the one-two punch of thunderstorms that blew through the D.C. area on July 25 and Aug. 12 of last year. The first storm, with wind gusts of 90 mph, knocked out power to 400,000 people and generated a wave of lightning that, by a freak tragedy, killed my friend Carl Henn at a community picnic in Rockville.

Also on the topic of extreme weather events and climate change, Tidwell states:

The proof is everywhere - outside my front door, in my neighborhood, on the news. After a decade of failure to address climate change at the national and international levels, our weather has gone haywire. In the Washington region alone, in barely a year, we’ve annihilated all records for snow accumulation, we’ve seen appalling power outages associated with year-round thunderstorms, and we’ve experienced the hottest summer in the 140 years we’ve been measuring. Winston Churchill’s oft-quoted warning on the eve of World War II now applies directly: “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.”

Those consequences explain the generator in my garage and why I’m reinforcing my basement windows to protect emergency supplies.

Later he states: “And yes, major snowfall events are increasing in the eastern United States even as the planet warms, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.”

Tying every extreme weather event to climate change may serve Tidwell’s argument that we’re now in an “age of consequences” from climate change, but it’s scientifically inaccurate. The fact is that climate scientists have not discovered any conclusive links between a warming climate and thunderstorm activity, let alone severe thunderstorms.

Furthermore, while there are sound physical science reasons to think that heavy snowfall may become more common in a warming world - a seemingly paradoxical relationship at first glance - no conclusive evidence has emerged here either. As we’ve covered extensively on this blog, multiple factors contributed to last winter’s record snows, including the naturally occurring North Atlantic Oscillation and an El Nino event in the Pacific.

Scientists are studying whether the loss of Arctic sea ice may be changing atmospheric circulation to such a degree that it is making colder, snowier winters more likely in the eastern U.S. and parts of Europe. But they have not stated that there is already an observable increase in major snowfall events in the eastern U.S., and no reference is provided in the Outlook piece to support that assertion.

Tidwell’s essay is essentially the opposite of Post columnist George Will’s notoriously inaccurate portrayals of climate change, which come from a climate change contrarian point of view, intent on convincing the reader to move along, that there is nothing to see here, and manmade climate change is not a big deal - if it even exists.

Tidwell is clearly saying, “it’s time to freak out about global warming.” But like Will has done on occasion, he twists facts to support his case, which should not be permitted - even in the paper’s opinion section.

The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.

By  |  12:30 PM ET, 03/07/2011

Categories:  Freedman, Climate Change, Science, Latest

 
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