Economics, Energy and the Environment

Why Climate Change Reminds Me of a T.S. Eliot Poem

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past

—T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

eliot1Many people have commented that climate change has come to be what philosophers and logicians call a “non-falsifiable hypothesis,” that is, a theory or belief that explains everything and is therefore impossible to be contradicted by observations or contrary evidence. At some point, however, advocates of non-falsifiable hypotheses end up sleeping on park benches muttering about how “the Man,” or the CIA chip in his head, or international bankers, or . . . someone, is keeping the truth under wraps. (In fact, there a terrific little website, The Warmlist, that tracks all of the effects attributed to global warming. My favorite was teen acne, but the original link has gone dead, so now my favorite is how global warming will cause a rise in prostitution, though I have to say, the prospect of “sea snot” makes me think of James Joyce as well as Eliot. The Warmlist is up to 839 discrete effects now, ranging from acne to zoonotic diseases.) Sometimes, such people get institutionalized, or medicated. And some become global warming advocates.

The climate campaign establishment increasingly looks like its own self-contained and self-referential lunatic asylum, unable to exercise any self-restraint in finding positive proof of climate change in every weather surprise. Several years back, climate campaigners in Britain, citing the latest warming models, ostentatiously predicted that snowstorms would soon be a thing of the past in Britain, something schoolchildren would read about in history books or hear tales about from their grandparents. Then this fall just past, the British Met Office predicted a 60 to 80 percent change of a warmer-than-average winter this year.

But now Britain is having its second extremely cold winter in a row, with record snowfalls nearly strangling the nation. Oops.

Not to worry. The climateers have swung into action, and have explained why cooling is really warming. Judah Cohen, a private “seasonal forecaster,” took to the pages of the New York Times to explain how the warming arctic led to more snowfall over the Siberian land mass, which in turn cooled the air circulating over the northern hemisphere, and there you have it, big cold weather storms in the United States and Europe. Or, as Mr. Cohen puts it, “the overall warming of the atmosphere is actually creating cold-weather extremes.” (Bryan Walsh at Time magazine offers a rundown of similar counterintuitive explanations for why warming causes cooling.)

Cohen might well be correct about this. But if he is it raises a number of troubling questions, starting with how the Met Office missed this factor, and failed to include it in the climate model they use to issue seasonal forecasts. Needless to say, if Cohen is right then a lot of other climate scientists are wrong, which means our grasp of climate dynamics is rather incomplete.

“What might have been and has been / Point to one end, which is always present,” Eliot continues in Burnt Norton. Which reminds me of the climate record (“time future contained in time past”). We don’t understand the climate past with reasonable precision, as the intense debate about the “hockey stick” graph showed, and the computer models predicting a 2 to 5 degree rise in the future are clearly riddled with large uncertainties, given the range of prospective temperatures they spit out. No matter. “What is always present” today is the cocksure certainty that catastrophic global warming is occurring, and damn the weatherman. Think of it as the ultimate modernist free-verse, only without literary allusions “an abstraction / Remaining a perpetual possibility / Only in a world of speculation.”

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