All Global Warming is Local – The Politics and Science of Regional Climate Impacts


[What follows is the written text of a November 3, 2007 keynote speech
delivered by Chris Mooney in San Diego, California. The occasion was
the conservation group San Diego Coastkeeper’s 12th Annual Ocean Gala, and Mooney prepared special remarks on the subject of global warming impacts. DeSmogBlog has decided to republish the speech so that it may reach a broader audience.]

It’s a great pleasure to be here. I always enjoy doing talks in San Diego, and have had some great events here in the past few years—not to mention the unique experience of having someone purchase my book after a talk and then throw it at me. That was at UCSD.

So I really feel at home here.

Seriously, though: San Diegans are a great group of people, and I want to take this moment to applaud those living in this area for their courage, their resilience, and their heroic responses to the recent fires.

I also want to applaud Bruce Reznik and San Diego Coastkeeper for your invaluable work to preserve the oceans and beaches of this beautiful and unique area. You are true champions of nature and the environment, and you have my respect.

But a key question is, how can we best champion nature and the environment when both are changing due to global warming, and when we lack—or, worse, when our government denies us—adequate information about the nature of those changes and how to cope with them?

Addressing that question will be the focal point of this talk, but first, let’s start out with the good news. We’re seeing dramatically more media, public, and policy attention to global warming than ever before. And why is that? Well, in part because people like Al Gore have succeeded in dramatically raising the profile of the issue.

So it finally feels like we’re getting somewhere on climate change—but we still have a long way to go, and one of the most critical outstanding issues is, how do we prepare ourselves for a changing climate, community by community, region by region? How should San Diegans get ready for global warming, and how does that differ from how Floridians or Kansans should respond?

That’s a tough enough problem on a scientific level–and it’s made all the more difficult by the scandalous interference with climate science that has occurred under the current government. Tonight, then, I want share with you a particular slice of that troubling story. But first, to help illustrate why the study of regional climate impacts matters so much, I’d like to begin by dipping into the past history of this region.

So let me take you back to the year 1858. Charles Darwin was about to bring out On the Origin of Species. And an Irish scientist, John Tyndall, would soon give a pretty darn good description of what we now call the greenhouse effect. (Yes, evolution by natural selection and the greenhouse effect were nearly contemporaneous discoveries.)

On October 2, 1858 during this same era, something less well remembered, but nevertheless extraordinary, happened right here in San Diego. Let me read to you how the Daily Alta California described the weather that day:

…about 7 1-2 o’clock, A.M., we had a slight shower of rain…Soon after this…the barometer went almost immediately down several degrees lower than has ever been known in this vicinity……the wind gradually increased, and the whole heavens seemed closing in with bank upon bank of dark, heavy, ominous-looking clouds…this continued for a considerable length of time, the violence of the wind still increasing, until about one o’clock, when it came along in a perfect hurricane, tearing down houses and everything that was in its way. Roofs of houses, trees, fences, &c., &c., filled the air in all directions, doing a large amount of damage, in and about the city, and its immediate vicinity.”

What was going on here?

Well, according to scientists who have gone back over newspapers accounts like this one and examined other weather data, you actually had a brush with a Category 1 hurricane here in 1858. Furthermore, these experts estimate that if the same event recurred today—when the population of the area has grown from just a few thousand people to 3 million—damages could easily exceed $ 500 million. Not to mention the severe impacts on coastal ecosystems, at a time when seas are also rising.

As a coastal conservationist, then, or simply as an average San Diegan, it seems to me that in light of this information you might want to know at least two things. First: What is the chance of the 1858 San Diego hurricane recurring? And second: How might global warming alter that risk?

If we’re simply asking about the recurrence of this event without taking climate change into account, it turns out we may have at least a ballpark answer. The researcher who first discovered this storm has suggested that the return interval may be once every few hundred years–likely during El Nino, a phenomenon that heats up the Pacific ocean off the West Coast.

Some of you will recall that during the last extremely strong El Nino event in 1997, we had Hurricane Linda, the most powerful hurricane ever observed in the East Pacific, a storm as intense as Katrina at its peak–and one that was originally forecast to make its way to Southern California, albeit in a considerably weakened state.

But how does global warming alter San Diego’s small but hardly nonexistent hurricane risk? Does it increase the incidence of El Nino conditions? Does it, by raising ocean temperatures, make it more likely that a hurricane forming off the coast of Mexico can travel this far north? And when this next hurricane does eventually come, how much will sea level rise amplify its impacts?

Though we very much need answers to these types of questions, we really don’t have them at present.

And for that matter, you could ask very similar questions in relation to the devastating wildfires that we’ve just seen. With wildfires just as with hurricanes, there are eminently good reasons to think global warming will change our risks–or, indeed, has already changed them. In fact, a 2006 paper in the journal Science said precisely that:

…the projected regional warming and consequent increase in wildfire activity in the western United States is likely to magnify the threats to human communities and ecosystems, and substantially increase the management challenges in restoring forests and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Making such an observation, however, is very different from being able to zoom in and say how the risk will change for a particular community in a particular place—like, say, San Diego. Indeed, this whole issue of studying regional impacts of global warming may be our central climate science problem today.

The good news is that here in San Diego, you have a lot of great scientists who can look into these types of problems, like the folks at Scripps. You’re more fortunate than many or even most parts of the country in this respect.

But nevertheless, I believe there ought to be a nationwide, publicly funded, equal-opportunity project to assess regionally specific climate risks across the United States–like, say, how global warming might change San Diego’s hurricane vulnerability. In fact, precisely such a project existed at one time–until this administration killed it.

That’s the story I want to share with you next, but first, because I understand there are some Republicans in the audience, I should probably give some disclosure.

You may be aware that I’m the author of a book called The Republican War on Science. But my message tonight isn’t a partisan one. There are many Republicans with good records on global warming—like your governor, or like Senator John McCain, who has upbraided the administration on climate change.

Nevertheless, the present administration has truly and tragically set us back on this issue, and one of the ways it has done so is by undermining the science itself.

Many of you will have heard the story of James Hansen, NASA‘s most famous climate scientist, and how he was prevented from talking to the media about global warming–particularly his fear that we may lock in changes that will ultimately lead to a loss of the ice sheets. And many of you will have heard some of the other stories of meddling with climate science by the administration.

But I think the greatest climate science scandal of the current government is also one of the least known.

Late in its second term, the Clinton administration undertook an massive report on regional impacts of global warming known as the “National Assessment,” a first ever attempt to have the government comprehensively study this complex problem and inform communities across the USA about it. But as I report in the latest issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, once Bush came in there was a concerted effort on the part of conservative groups to prevent the new government from either conducting an updated assessment (as required by law) or even from making reference to the old one.

As climate science whistleblower Rick Piltz put it, describing the editing process for the U.S. Climate Change Science Program’s 2003 strategic research plan:

In the March 31, 2003 draft [of the Strategic Plan], there were a total of 12 references to the National Assessment. In the June 2, 2003 draft, four of these references had been removed. In the June 30, 2003 “Agency Concurrence Draft,” seven references remained. In the July 24 pre-publication version that was released in a limited edition, five references remained. In the September 2003 final printed version of the plan, four of these five references had been removed. The National Assessment was mentioned only in a single sentence, which did not include the actual title of the report.”

And that’s just one example of how this pioneering study was treated. It was attacked with spurious lawsuits. It was censored out of reports. It was made to seem scientifically dubious, even though it had been eminently praised by the National Academy of Sciences. It was denigrated with a misleading disclaimer on a government website. And most outrageously of all, it was all but ignored as a basis for further work by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program.

All of this conservatives—friends of industry—demanded.

You see, the last thing they wanted was to see global warming personalized—to have a government report explaining to San Diegans how climate change might make itself manifest in their own backyards, for instance. The National Assessment was their absolute nemesis. Or as the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Myron Ebell said of the report: “To the extent that it has vanished, we have succeeded.”

The Bush administration was recently rebuked in federal court for ignoring the work of the previous administration on global warming impacts, and for not producing a new assessment. Now the administration may or may not be doing something to fill the gap.

But the fact remains, we’ve now had seven years wasted—and a government climate science program that has been largely focused on researching technical issues up in the atmosphere rather than comprehensively studying the impacts of global warming down here among all of us—the implications for our coasts, for our ecosystems, for our communities.

So let’s circle back to where I started: There’s quite a lot of good news on the global warming front. Attention to the subject is at an all-time high, and it feels like we’re nearing a tipping point—on the verge of a political and policy breakthrough.

But before getting too giddy, let’s remember that we still don’t know nearly enough about what kind of future we’re going to be living in, or about how to adapt to it.

Meanwhile, although there are signs that the science games from the administration may be ending, they are not yet over—witness the recent story of how the White House removed information on climate impacts to human health from Senate testimony by director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So in short, on global warming, now is the time for action—and that includes studying and preparing for the changes we’re already committed to. And to motivate and inspire ourselves as we carry on in this struggle, I think we have every right to draw upon—and channel–our feelings of outrage now and again. In light of the evidence of what’s been going on in our government, I think you could hardly blame us.

Thank you.

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