Politics & Policy

Don’t Blame Climate Change for the California Drought

The president should take a look at the science.

Of all the media-savvy decisions that our friends in the alarmists’ camp have made in recent years, the finest was to change their branding. “Global warming” is a clear hypothesis, subject to investigation and to criticism; “Global cooling,” likewise. But “climate change”? Now that is beautifully and efficaciously ambiguous — less an ironclad prediction and more an ersatz Rorschach test onto which anything and everything can be projected.

Taking firm advantage of the term’s cloudy meaning, Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, announced on Face the Nation this weekend that he was vexed by a “very chilling story in the New York Times today about the impact of climate change on droughts in the West – California, which is now seeing some pretty serious developments as a result of climate change.” “So,” McDonough concluded, “we’ll be looking at that.”

As it happens, “looking at that” would be a rather good idea — not least because the claim is arrant nonsense. As the San Jose Mercury News recorded a few weeks back, the cycle of high pressure that the state is currently experiencing has many precedents in history, and, far from being obviously “the result of climate change,” its cause has left “researchers scratching their heads.” Daniel Cayan, an oceanographer and atmospheric scientist who works for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, concedes that, unlike the president and his acolytes, he simply has no idea what is happening. “I wish I had a really good answer for this,” Cayan told the paper. Bob Benjamin, a forecaster with the National Weather Service, is equally flummoxed: “This ridge is sort of a mountain in the atmosphere. In most years, it comes and goes. This year it came and didn’t go.”

Sometimes, it just doesn’t — and nobody is quite sure why. The activist group Climate Resolve, which describes its role as “inspiring people at home, at work and in government to reduce greenhouse gas pollution and prepare for climate impacts,” explained in January that this drought not only resembles a similar period of aridity that lasted from 1976 and 1977 but in fact echoes patterns that existed “well before society started burning coal for energy.” “Go back a few hundred years,” executive director Jonathan Parfrey maintains, and “the paleo-record shows that the Southwest experienced multi-decadal droughts.” The group’s inconvenient conclusion? “California’s terrible drought is not due to anthropogenic climate change.”

We’ve been here before. During the terrible Central Great Plains drought of 2012, alarmists jumped all over themselves to bend the problem into a shape that approximated their agenda. Chief among the scaremongers, typically, was President Obama, who claimed in his fifth State of the Union address that “we can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence . . . or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science — and act before it’s too late.”

Contrary to the president’s willfully misleading implication, these two propositions are not mutually exclusive but complementary. It is the “overwhelming judgment of science” that Superstorm Sandy, the “most severe drought in decades,” and the “worst wildfires some states have ever seen” had absolutely nothing to do with the “climate change” cause to which the president was hoping to rally the country. As the Guardian noted with irritation at the time, “Barack Obama and other prominent figures have repeatedly cited the drought as evidence of climate change,” despite reports from “five different government agencies” that had concluded emphatically that this “was not the case.”

In fact, the AP’s Seth Borenstein observed, the drought was the product of “a freak of nature that wasn’t caused by man-made global warming” but, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration put it, by natural variations in weather. “This is one of those events that comes along once every couple hundreds of years,” the NOAA report’s lead author Martin Hoerling confirmed.

In case you’re wondering, that is the very same Martin Hoerling who had written a few months earlier to the New York Times about another “freak coincidence,” Superstorm Sandy, which was the product of

little more than the coincidental alignment of a tropical storm with an extratropical storm. Both frequent the west Atlantic in October . . . nothing unusual with that. On rare occasions their timing is such as to result in an interaction which can lead to an extreme event along the eastern seaboard. As to underlying causes, neither the frequency of tropical or extratropical cyclones over the North Atlantic are projected to appreciably change due to climate change, nor have there been indications of a change in their statistical behavior over this region in recent decades.

As if tweaking the president, Hoerling then went on to reassure readers that Sandy had not been “some spell conjured upon us by great external forces . . . unless you believe in the monster flicks of Universal Studios fame!” A lovely line, but one that is rendered ever so slightly less amusing when one acknowledges that the president and his team really do appear to believe in just those “monster flicks.”

A favorite progressive pastime is to highlight the rubes who look out of their windows and make grand pronouncements about trends based solely on the weather that afternoon. “Weather is not climate,” they scream, rolling their eyes and muttering about science-with-a-capital-S. This is correct; weather is not the same as climate. But neither is every serious catastrophe that befalls mankind indicative of the end times, requiring of presidential intervention, and attributable to the bogeyman du jour — however dramatic the special effects in the monster flick might turn out to be.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.


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