Impacts of our changing climate

A couple of recent studies (see here and here) have highlighted the impacts of global climate change in a very real way. It seems that we are having more extreme weather than natural cycles might explain, and that our warmer climate is having a primarily negative impact on global food crop production. These studies are as important for what they say directly, as they are for the picture they paint of climate change impacts.

In science, it is impossible to prove something right and, in practice, scientists very rarely deal in the absolutes of right and wrong. What is far more typical of scientific research is exploring probabilities — being able to say that an outcome is likely or very likely to be the case given other trends and information. I’ve often thought that much of the public skepticism about climate change in the US is because we’re so used to thinking in absolutes that we have a hard time accepting as “truth” a hypothesis that isn’t presented as indisputable fact but rather as a very statistically significant probability.

The two studies here are great examples. They don’t analyze one particularly bad storm, or discuss horrible crop yields in a single location. (Indeed it would be virtually impossible to attribute the cause of so specific an event to global climate change.) Instead, these studies take in huge quantities of data regarding heavy rainfall events and relative crop yields over a long period of time. Then, using computer models and statistical analysis, they seek trends not otherwise accounted for by natural cycles, changes in technology or bad weather.

These studies have found that over the last 30 to 40 years, extreme precipitation events and harvests with relatively low crop yields have increased in frequency. And man-made climate change is very likely to cause of those increased events. They aren’t explained by anything else. Is that an absolute “truth” we can all believe in? I don’t know. But I do know that these trends will make it harder to keep people housed and fed around the globe, and that is very troubling indeed.

The evidence for man-made global warming is sound. We are beginning to see stronger and increasingly clear evidence of the impacts of that warming. The question we now must ask ourselves is, when are we going to start doing something serious about this? Now, when we still have a chance to stem the tide, or later, when our only option will be to try to adapt to a radically different planet?

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  1. Gregg Hilger - May 25, 2011

    Tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, flooding… Mother Nature’s Revenge?

  2. Amber - May 25, 2011

    Yes too much rain ruins a garden. Unlike the big business farmers in my area, I do not have crop insurance. Why should we have to rely on the grocery store to always feed us. With so much modification of seeds why can’t they change seeds to tolerate climate change?

  3. Bryan - May 25, 2011

    I really appreciate TerraPass’ efforts and this blog. At the same time, there’s a dogma that needs to be challenged.
    For example:
    “These studies have found that over the last 30 to 40 years, extreme precipitation events and harvests with relatively low crop yields have increased in frequency. And man-made climate change is very likely to cause of those increased events.”
    Perhaps you have the advantage of having read the actual studies, while I can only rely on the press releases, but I don’t see where either study concludes that “man-made climate change is very likely the cause”. If you wish to draw that conclusion, it’s your prerogative, but make that distinction.
    The PR for the UVic study says: “…human-induced global warming may be responsible….” The models used predicted an increase in extreme precipitation, but real-world data shows stronger extremes. Are the models wrong? Is there another factor driving extreme precipitation? Note also that the study only goes to 1999. What has happened the last ten years?
    The take-away from the crop study is “…farmers could have produced a lot more food if the WEATHER (my emphasis) had been cooler.” So, simple enough. At the same time: “For reasons still up for debate, temperatures largely held steady in the U.S. over the study period. So Iowa, by and large, doesn

  4. PaulS - May 25, 2011

    The question is not “when are we going to start doing something about this”. The question is:
    …HOW?…
    There is not one person in a position of power who is willing to put their career on the line by taking the radical steps required to have a significant affect on the climate.
    We are already in the “adapt to a radically different planet” phase.

  5. JT - May 25, 2011

    For two years we had a Democratic majority in the House, a filibuster proof Senate and majority control in the White House…and nothing changed.
    If it wasn’t going to happen then, how in the world will it ever change with a split Congress?

  6. lora - May 25, 2011

    We are also experiencing a change of magnetic poles which will affect our weather patterns greatly.
    I tried to find out how we are monitoring the magnetic fields but there is not much information available. These fields encompass our earth and are measured in teslas.
    Anyone know anything? I heard a rumour that the Chinese thought the compass pointed south when they first met the white sailers.

  7. Shinya - May 26, 2011

    Nature, or in fact the universe as a biological form of life has only one mission. That is to maintain the balance and carry on with its own course of life.
    Now, while in contrary to as many people tend to say “save the earth”, we won’t be able to destroy the planet. But rather we are in danger of being eradicated from the planet. That is because we have become harmful pests to the planet. The planet as an universal biological form of life has natural mechanism in place just like every other form of life, and it has started to kick in.
    Just like micro organisms are part of our life, so is the human race, planet earth, solar system, milky way the galaxy are all part of one mega form of life called universe which has birth, death and reincarnation, all under one mission and its law. Again, that is to maintain the balance.

  8. Bryan - May 26, 2011

    George Carlin said it best: “The planet is fine. The people are f__d.”