President Obama Explains the Science Behind Climate Change and Extreme Weather

Okay, technically this is from February 2010.  But as I was rummaging through my old posts, I thought it’s worth remembering that even though Obama is largely silent on climate change now, it wasn’t so long ago that the President actually felt so comfortable talking about global warming that he would explain something that doesn’t fit into a soundbite.

Media Matters had the original story:

Earlier in the day, we highlighted Rep. Steve King’s absurd conclusion that snow disproves climate change. Addressing a crowd at the annual CPAC conference, King said “It’s tough to make an argument when the evidence is all around us with a snowy white wonder in a crystal cathedral.” This sort of inane logic is what scores political points among conservative activists. Challenging science seems to be the conservative movement’s equivalent to speaking truth to power. But the conclusion is tragically flawed.

At a town hall in Nevada this morning, President Obama directly addressed the issue:

Obama: First of all, we just got five feet of snow in Washington and so everybody’s like-a lot of the people who are opponents of climate change, they say “see, look at that. There’s all this snow on the ground, you know, this doesn’t mean anything.” I want to just be clear that the science of climate change doesn’t mean that every place is getting warmer. It means the planet as a whole is getting warmer. But what it may mean is, for example, Vancouver which supposed to be getting snow during the Olympics, suddenly is at 55 degrees and Dallas suddenly is getting seven inches of snow. The idea is that the planet as a whole get warmer, you start seeing changing weather patterns and that creates more violent storm systems, more unpredictable weather, so any single place might end up being warmer. Another place might end up being a little bit cooler. There might end up being more precipitation in the air. More monsoons, more hurricanes, more tornadoes, more drought in some places, floods in other places.

The full repost contains an NPR ran an interview with NCAR’s Kevin Trenberth, and uber-meteorologist, Jeff Masters (audio here) which is still timely — even though the deluges come down as rain in the summer:

RENEE MONTAGNE, host: With snow blanketing much of the country, the topic of global warming has become the butt of jokes. Climate skeptics built an igloo in Washington, D.C. during last weeks storm and dedicated it to former Vice President Al Gore, who’s become the public face of climate change. There was also a YouTube video called “12 Inches of Global Warming” that showed snowplows driving through a blizzard.  For scientists who study the climate, it’s all a bit much. As NPRs Christopher Joyce reports, they’re trying to dig out.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: Snowed-in Washington is where much of the political debate over climate change happens. So it did not go unnoticed when a Washington think-tank that advocates climate action had to postpone a climate meeting last week because of inclement weather.

That kind of irony isn’t lost on climate scientists. Most don’t see a contradiction between a warming world and lots of snow. Here’s Kevin Trenberth, a prominent climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado.

Mr. KEVIN TRENBERTH (Scientist, National Center for Atmospheric Research): The fact that the oceans are warmer now than they were, say, 30 years ago, means there’s about, on average, 4 percent more water vapor lurking around over the oceans than there was, say, in the 1970s.

JOYCE: Warmer water means more water vapor rises up into the air. And what goes up, must come down.

Mr. TRENBERTH: So one of the consequences of a warming ocean near a coastline like the East Coast and Washington, D.C., for instance, is that you can get dumped on with more snow, partly as a consequence of global warming.

JOYCE: And Trenberth notes that you don’t need very cold temperatures to get big snow. In fact, when the mercury drops too low, it may be too cold to snow.

There’s something else fiddling with the weather this year: a strong El Nino. That’s the weather pattern that, every few years, raises itself up out of the western Pacific Ocean and blows east to the Americas. It brings heavy rains and storms to California and the South and Southeast. It also pushes high-altitude jet streams farther south, which brings colder air with them.

Trenberth also says El Nino can lock in weather patterns like a meteorological highway, so that storms keep coming down the same track. True, those storms have been big ones – record breakers. But meteorologist Jeff Masters, with the Web site Weather Underground, says it’s average temperatures — not snowfall — that really measure climate change.

Mr. JEFF MASTERS (Meteorologist): Because if it’s cold enough to snow, you will get snow. We still have winter, even though the temperatures have warmed on average, oh, about 1 degree Fahrenheit over the past 100 years.

JOYCE: Masters says that 1 degree average warming is not enough to eliminate winter or storms. A storm is part of what scientists classify as weather. Weather is largely influenced by local conditions and changes week to week. It’s fickle, fraught with wild ups and downs.

Climate is the long-term trend of atmospheric conditions across large regions, even the whole planet. Changes in climate are slow and measured in decades, not weeks.

Masters and most climate scientists say a warming climate would be expected to affect the weather, sometimes drastically, but exactly where and when is hard to predict.

Mr. MASTERS: In that kind of a climate, youll have more frequent extreme events, heat waves and so on. But again, none of those individual events is proof in itself that the climate is changing.

JOYCE: Climate scientists say they can’t prove any single weather event is due to climate change. Thus, they say, Katrina or the heat wave in Vancouver that’s dogging the Olympics isn’t proof that climate change is happening. Nor can eastern and southern snowstorms prove that it’s not.

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16 Responses to President Obama Explains the Science Behind Climate Change and Extreme Weather

  1. Michael Tucker says:

    President Obama needs to keep it up! He needs to emphasize all the terrible policies Republicans embody. He needs to make it clear Republicans will do nothing to protect future generations from catastrophic climate disruption. He needs to hammer home how they want to raise taxes on the poor and the middle class while giving more tax cuts to the wealthy. He needs to make it clear that they want to end EPA protection of clean air and water and destroy Medicare and Social Security. President Obama must be an advocate for policies that will benefit the majority of Americans. He needs to throw the whole stinking, steaming pile of Republican ideology in their face!

  2. Leif says:

    “The fact that the oceans are warmer now than they were, say, 30 years ago, means there’s about, on average, 4 percent more water vapor lurking around over the oceans than there was, say, in the 1970s.”

    The first time I was presented with this 4% fact, here on CP more than a year ago I asked the question: How much water does 4% amount to? One of the commentators took it upon himself to calculate that it was equivalent to ~1.5 times the volume of Lake Superior! I have subsequently seen that equivalence used other places on the net but to my knowledge it has not been confirmed by others. Given the size of the numbers involved a decimal shift can make a big difference and it would be nice to have confirmation if anyone is inclined.

    So with that in mind, 1.5x the water in Lake Superior turned to snow in the winter or mid west floods in the summer is a lot of EXTRA participation. Recall that once it participates it is quickly replaced with new evaporation. It is the NEW NORMAL folks!

  3. Sasparilla says:

    If only our President actually stood up for what he, rarely, talked about.

    Just 6 months before this, the Obama administration approved the first tar sands pipeline from Canada to the US Midwest:

  4. Drew MacPherson says:

    It’s kind of sad that when I first saw the headline of this article, I assumed it was going to be a link to an Onion article.

  5. I think Obama would have more leeway to talk climate change if the mainstream media weren’t so mum on the subject. The American public has been vastly misinformed on this issue and I’d be willing to be oil company advertising dollars have played a huge part.

  6. Harry Middlemas says:

    I’d watch the video, but it would make me too damn sad, and angry.

  7. Bill G. says:

    Thanks for posting this. This is the Obama I want to see.

  8. Richard Brenne says:

    Leif, I second your wanting to know this. I recently brought this up with Kevin Trenberth and he said it sounded reasonable to him but someone here who can really work a calculator without error would be very kind to check this and show us their math.

    Also anyone who denies climate change science should be consistent and deny meteorological science as well and go beachcombing on the outermost beaches of Cape Hattaras as Irene hits. A great photo op for Perry, Bachman and all other Republicans. . .

  9. Richard Brenne says:

    Oh, and Trenberth also said that the water vapor over dry deserts gets down to 0 per cent but can be increased to 15 to 20 per cent over wet areas, with the global average a 4 per cent increase since 1970.

    When talking to a friend about this he pointed out storm clouds on the horizon and said “It looks like there’s a Lake Oswego building up out there.” (He meant the small suburban lake south of Portland, Oregon.)

    Maybe Pakistan in July, 2010 or Queensland, Australia in January, 2011 was like San Francisco or Chesapeake Bay falling on those areas. It would be very helpful if someone would calculate these kinds of things and share them with us as well, again showing us their math so that others could replicate the equation.

    And at high tide the volume of the Chesapeake might double from Irene’s storm surge and rain by the weekend compared to its recent lowest tide. Again just a guess -Leif and I will do the guessing if others will do the calculating. . .

  10. Leif says:

    Obama would have more leeway if he took the time to use the bully pulpit to educate the masses in the first place. He does have a gift for oratory, he needs to use it. Perhaps if he spoke out the media would have something to cover.

    Hay Obama, Heal the Nation,
    Give us climate education.

  11. Roger says:

    Dear Joe,
    Thanks for finally bringing back the former comment system. Many of us missed it.

    I agree with Leif. It’s time for Obama to show some good old fashioned leadership. Leaders lead their people to safety. They also inform their people of threats.

    Hey Obama, lead the nation,
    give us climate edu-cation!

    Warm regards,

  12. Anne van der Bom says:

    Me too, glad the old comment system is back! And the larger, more legible font too!

    When I go to a doctor, I trust his expertise. I trust him to make the decision for which I lack the knowledge.

    Suppose you went to a doctor, and he said: “look here, I have 87 different antibiotics to treat your disease. Tell me which one you want to use”. Unthinkable.

    It seems nowadays the populist leaders do exactly that, as much in Europe as in the US. Instead of making the hard decisions and convincing the public they are necessary, what they essentially do is saying: “Ok, now you’ve elected me, tell me what you want me to do”.

    In Europe this is most visible in the handling of the greek debt crisis. The politicians know that it is necessary for the health of the EU to support Greece. But the majority of the population wants to end all payments to Greece immediately. Hence the stalemate and lack of a clear, consistent policy with all the devastating consequences for the economy.

    It’s exactly that with climate change. Instead of convincing the public that it poses a serious risk to a prosperous future for all of us, they say: “Ah, well, since there still is a lively debate in the population about whether we really have problem and can do something about it, I will wait until you have decided what I must do about it.”

    The lack of a clear, consistent policy prevents companies to plan for compliance to regulation of greenhouse gases. The past has shown again and again that, given clear rules and enough time to adapt, companies can easily comply without hurting their competetiveness.

  13. Charles Zeller says:

    The annual mean global concentration of water vapor would yield about 25 mm of liquid water over the entire surface of the Earth if it were to instantly fall as rain. (= 0.025 km)

    The Earth’s surface area is 510,072,000 km ^ 2

    Lake Superior contains 12,100 km ^ 3 of water.

    If gaseous H2O in atmosphere were condensed => 0.025 x 510,000,000 = 12,751,800 km ^ 3

    The additional volume (4%) = 510,000 km ^ 3

    The additional H20 is 42x Lake Superior’s volume.

  14. Charles Zeller says:

    A way to edit comments before moderation would be nice. Correction, 25mm = 0.000025 km. So if the first 3 facts and my calculator are right, additional atmospheric H2O is 0.042X the volume of Lake Superior.

  15. Bill G says:

    Its nice to see the President dip a toe in the water of what global warming means, but the reality is so much worse than his description that it does nothing to warm the American people where this is heading.

    Climate scientist James Hansen say if CO2 is not curbed Earth will become another Venus – 450f temperature. Nothing will survive.

    Does anyone truly believe we will curb CO2? If you do, I’d like to see your evidence.

    Regarding CO2 in the atmosphere we are at
    2 minutes to midnight. The protests are nice, as are falling solar panel prices, etc., but really….its time WE stop being Deniers, too.

  16. Robert In New Orleans says:

    President Obama is obviously an intelligent individual, perhaps he is afraid to tell us the facts because he fears wide scale social disruption if the general public knew the truth. Maybe Chu told him the outlook for the future is much darker then what is publicly known even within in the climate science community.