As Weather Gets Weirder, Conservatives Give Science the Cold Shoulder

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Spring came early this year in New York, although now we’re having a cold snap. The Callery pear trees in our neighborhood bloomed much sooner than usual — but now a chilly breeze is blowing their paper white blossoms away. We had an abnormally warm winter but one freakish snowstorm in late October that was the earliest ever recorded in the city.


“Lurching from one weather extreme to another seems to have become routine across the Northern Hemisphere,” Justin Gillis and Joanna M. Foster wrote in The New York Times this week. “Parts of the United States may be shivering now, but Scotland is setting heat records. Across Europe, people died by the hundreds during a severe cold wave in the first half of February, but a week later revelers in Paris were strolling down the Champs-Élysées in their shirt-sleeves.”

“Does science have a clue what is going on?

The short answer appears to be: not quite.

The longer answer is that researchers are developing theories that, should they withstand critical scrutiny, may tie at least some of the erratic weather to global warming. Specifically, suspicion is focused these days on the drastic decline of sea ice in the Arctic, which is believed to be a direct consequence of the human release of greenhouse gases.”

Thunderstorms and blossoms announce the coming of spring in Washington, Tuesday, March 20, 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Thunderstorms and blossoms announce the coming of spring in Washington, Tuesday, March 20, 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, nearly 600 pages long, presents evidence linking climate change to longer and more frequent heat waves, heavier snow and rainfalls and increased coastal flooding. Alyssa Battistoni of Mother Jones reports, “While there have been many studies on the link between climate and extreme weather, and plenty of speculation, this report, which synthesizes over a thousand studies on climate, weather, and disasters, offers an ‘unprecedented level of detail’ on observed and expected changes in weather and climate extremes…”

“The IPCC warns that extreme temperatures and heavy precipitation have been on the rise since 1950, and that those trends are likely to continue throughout the 21st century. The heat impacts are particularly worrisome: The report says it’s ‘virtually certain’ that we’ll see more daily temperature extremes at the high end of the scale going forward, and ‘very likely’ — scientific lingo for 90-100 percent certain — that heat waves will increase in length, frequency, and intensity. Droughts are also likely to intensify in many areas, including central North America, central and southern Europe, and northeast Brazil.”

The IPCC report came on the heels of a study from scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, published in the journal Nature Climate Change. They conclude, “For some types of extreme — notably heat waves but also precipitation extremes — there is now strong evidence linking specific events or an increase in their number to the human influence on climate.” The full article is behind a paywall, but you can read a brief summary from Bloomberg News.

The most unusual report comes from Richard Primack and Abraham Miller-Rushing, two researchers who are studying climate change using 19th century journals of plant flowering dates kept by author, philosopher — and naturalist — Henry David Thoreau. According to The Guardian’s Alison Flood:

“After deciphering Thoreau’s ‘notoriously bad’ handwriting, and spending ‘a large amount of time’ matching the names used for plants in the 1850s with their modern equivalents, Primack and Miller-Rushing compared Thoreau’s data on flowering dates, coupled with research from the 19th-century local botanist Alfred Hosmer, with modern data of their own. Looking at 43 common Concord plant species, they found ‘unambiguously’ that these plants, on average, ‘are now flowering 10 days earlier than they were in Thoreau’s time,’ they write in an article for the journal BioScience.

“Over the 155 intervening years, the average temperature in Concord increased by 2.4C, they estimate.”

Meanwhile, as Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum continues to attack global warming as a “hoax,” and his GOP rivals express doubts about the causes of climate change, other new research indicates that conservatives, who in past decades embraced science more fully than liberals, have indeed become increasingly skeptical.

In an upcoming issue of the American Sociological Review, Gordon Gauchat of the University of North Carolina examined data from 1976 to 2010 and writes, “Results show that group differences in trust in science are largely stable over the period, except for respondents identifying as conservative. Conservatives began the period with the highest trust in science, relative to liberals and moderates, and ended the period with the lowest.”

According to Liz Goodwin at The Lookout news blog, “Gauchat attributes the changes to two forces:

Both science and conservatives have changed a lot in 40 years. In the post-WWII period, research was largely wedded to the Defense Department and NASA — think the space race and the development of the atomic bomb. Now the scientific institution ‘has come out from behind those institutions and been its own cultural force.’ That has meant it is increasingly viewed as a catalyst of government regulation, as in the failed Democratic proposal to institute cap-and-trade as a way to reduce carbon emissions and stave off climate change.

“People are now viewing science as part of government regulation,” Gauchat says.

Interestingly, Gauchat has found that in Europe the trend is exactly the opposite, with liberals more distrustful of scientists than conservatives. “It’s which debates are salient in the public,” he said — over there, genetically modified food is a far hotter issue than global warming.

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