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The Cause of Wildfires

December 1, 2018

Was the Camp Fire in California caused by climate change?  Was hurricane Florence caused by global warming?  These are sucker questions.  A reputable scientist might answer “maybe”.  Some scientists will patiently explain the difference between weather and climate.

Hurricanes, wildfires, droughts, and floods are all weather events, just like rainstorms and clear skies.  They are more extreme, but all weather events.  Many factors conspire to cause weather events.  Most of these are already known to scientists that study weather.  Climate change is one of these factors, but it’s a small one in the short term.

Climate is simply a long-term average of weather, an average that smooths out weather events.  It’s a mathematical abstraction.  Nevertheless, it is a real thing.

There are two almost insurmountable barriers to widespread belief in climate change.  People don’t experience climate.  That’s why they ask about extreme weather events.  Climate is outside of our experience.  Its time scale is longer than a human lifetime.  Consequently, most people don’t understand climate and are not concerned that it might change.

Understanding climate change requires predicting the future.  This is something we have done very badly.  How many predictions of flying cars have you seen?  There are many equally bad examples.  How can we trust the dire warnings of changes at the end of the century?

Scientific predictions may be better.  They use computer models of world climate, for one thing.  Many researchers around the world are making predictions in this manner.  All predictions, of course, are vulnerable to unexpected factors.  All predictions of the future cannot be verified until the future arrives.

There are some certainties, some reliable data, as well.  We do have reliable measurements of many aspects of climate change in the recent past.  They do show global warming.  We do know what caused warming in the past.  Human activity is implicated in that cause.  In fact, human activity may be the only cause.

We must take action now to slow or prevent future climate change, even if we have doubts about its reality.  Scientists must support our efforts by verifying their predictions at regular intervals.  We do need some evidence that our efforts are having some effect on future climate.

 

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