Saturday, January 25, 2014

Shifting Baselines in Action

I've seen this excellent XKCD comic in a number of places because it perfectly illustrates the idiocy of using the recent attack of the polar vortices (vortexes?) to suddenly convince ourselves that all's well and good with the climate. It's too bad the term 'global warming' caught on because, while it is accurate - the globe as a whole is heating up - what that translates to on in any single location is weird, unpredictable, unusual weather, and that's exactly what we're seeing. Climate change is a better term, but oh well. Is there any issue that isn't just decided by marketing?

As Treehugger explains: Cold waves used to be more frequent, and now that we're not used to them, they seem worse:
Our rather short-term human memory means that we quickly forget how things used to be decades ago (if we were even alive back then), and so if things that used to be more frequent become more rare, they could seem like evidence that things are moving in the opposite direction because we're not used to them anymore.

A good example of this is that people who are younger than 28 have never lived a month of below average global temperatures. So what seems normal to them is actually part of an abnormal warming long-term trend. In other words, a long-term normal temp would seem unusually cold to these people based on personal experience.

The only way to have an informed, scientific opinion about long-term trends like climate change is to look at the hard data over long periods, which is what climate scientists are doing. You can't just anecdotally look at regional weather and compare it to what you remember to make up your mind.
and also:
The that overall there is a downward trend in the number of extreme cold nights like we’re currently experiencing – although there are variations in a few cities. This trend is consistent with climate studies showing that overall, winters across the contiguous U.S. have warmed by .61°F per decade since 1970, and every region has warmed at least somewhat over that time.

…For example, in Minneapolis in the 1970s (1969-79), there were an average of 14.7 nights with temperatures below minus 10°F. But in the past decade (2002-2012), that number has fallen dramatically, to about 3.8. The calculations run from July through June of the following year, so that we wouldn’t break up the winter season.

In Detroit in the 1970s, there were an average of 7.9 nights with temperatures below zero degrees. But now, that number is closer to 2 nights. And in Washington D.C., the number of nights with a low of 20 or below was 13.5 in the 1970s, but was closer to 8.3 in the past decade. The overnight low at Reagan National Airport on Jan. 7 was 6°F.

And in St. Louis, the 1970s featured an average of 3.8 nights with a low of 0°F or below, yet in the past decade, the average for such frigid nights fell to zero.
Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism comments: I hate to sound like the old fart that I am, but in the 1980s, every winter, there would be at least one 2-3 day period when the daily high was below 5 degrees in NYC, sometimes below zero. The problem is with over 20 years of not having spells like that, no one has the right clothes for it when it does show up. Wear more layers!!! I seem to recall winters being colder and snowier in my youth. Of course, back then I didn't care. See also:

Polar Vortex in U.S. May be Example of Global Warming (Climate Central)
This is a perfect example of what I've talked about before: shifting baseline syndrome. I found this excellent description of shifting baseline syndrome on Edge Magazine by Paul Kedrosky under their question of the year 2011 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC CONCEPT WOULD IMPROVE EVERYBODY'S COGNITIVE TOOLKIT?
When John Cabot came to the Grand Banks off Newfoundland in 1497 he was astonished at what he saw. Fish, so many fish - fish in numbers he could hardly comprehend. According to Farley Mowat, Cabot wrote that the waters were so "swarming with fish [that they] could be taken not only with a net but in baskets let down and [weighted] with a stone."

The fisheries boomed for five hundred years, but by 1992 it was all over. The Grand Banks cod fishery was destroyed, and the Canadian government was forced to close it entirely, putting 30,000 fishers out of work. It has never recovered.

What went wrong? Many things, from factory fishing to inadequate oversight, but much of it was aided and abetted by treating each step toward disaster as normal. The entire path, from plenitude to collapse, was taken as the status quo, right up until the fishery was essentially wiped out.

In 1995 fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly coined a phrase for this troubling ecological obliviousness - he called it "shifting baseline syndrome". Here is how Pauly first described the syndrome: "Each generation of fisheries scientist accepts as baseline the stock situation that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes. When the next generation starts its career, the stocks have further declined, but it is the stocks at that time that serve as a new baseline. The result obviously is a gradual shift of the baseline, a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance of resource species."

It is blindness, stupidity, intergeneration data obliviousness. Most scientific disciplines have long timelines of data, but many ecological disciplines don't. We are forced to rely on second-hand and anecdotal information - we don't have enough data to know what is normal, so we convince ourselves that this is normal.

But it often isn't normal. Instead, it is a steadily and insidiously shifting baseline, no different than convincing ourselves that winters have always been this warm, or this snowy. Or convincing ourselves that there have always been this many deer in the forests of eastern North America. Or that current levels of energy consumption per capita in the developed world are normal. All of these are shifting baselines, where our data inadequacy, whether personal or scientific, provides dangerous cover for missing important longer-term changes in the world around us.

When you understand shifting baseline syndrome it forces you to continually ask what is normal. Is this? Was that? And, at least as importantly, it asks how we "know" that it's normal. Because, if it isn't, we need to stop shifting the baselines and do something about it before it's too late.
I've heard a lot of claims recently about how much "better" our environment has become under neoliberal capitalism. Even if that were true, we're judging it against what's "normal" and a lot of that is the extremely polluted, overexploited world of the very recent past. And, of course, the pollution hasn't gone away, it's just been dumped in the backyards of people even poorer than we are - Chinese and African peasants, for example. That was a major point of this post, particularly the following quote:
 "...the hunter-gatherers of the old days weren't forced into marginal areas. They were living off the fat of the land in the best areas in the world, killing mammoths and so forth, even in the Ice Ages and so forth. So they were living in the highest carrying capacity areas in the world. I mean you read about the hunter-gatherers in the Nile. I mean, this is a good life, man! You go in there, and you gather, and there’s so many fish, and there’s so many birds, and there’s so many animals that they practically fall into your hands. People have no idea how lush the world used to be."
And, of course, shifting baselines apply to more than the environment. A lot of what we consider "normal" today - going heavily into debt for college, minimal taxes of wealth and capital gains, large amounts of people making minimum wage, politicians bought out by special interests, tenuous employment with no benefits - was anything but "normal" in times past. This is tied into the concept of "creeping normalcy." What was once an outrage just becomes "the way things are."

The safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.

--CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

BONUS: Maybe we should move to Alaska, which is now too warm for sled dog racing (and about 30 degrees warmer than here): 2nd Iditarod qualifier yields to warm temperatures (AP)


  1. "Is there any issue that isn't just decided by marketing?" No. The Hologram is Omnipresent.

  2. Climate change does not work either... climate always changes. It was unusually stable between 1850 and 2000, that's all.

    Climate weirding is what I refer to. Accurate, as it implies human perception.


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