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Thursday, January 19, 2012

'Loading the climate dice': Why it's important

[UPDATED 6/23, 9:30 a.m.] Twenty years ago today, James E. Hansen testified before the Senate Energy Committee — in a room kept intentionally warm by committee staff — that the atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels and forests was already perceptibly influencing Earth’s climate.
That's a quote from the New York Times' Andrew C. Revkin, dated June 23, 2008, memorializing a key 1988 turning point in the history of human-caused climate change. Dr. Hansen was then director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City. Revkin adds:
The video [shot by Revkin during a 2008 interview that is the subject of the article] begins with [Dr. Hansen's] explanation of a visual aid he created in 1988 with Jose Mendoza, an illustrator at Goddard in the days before PowerPoint: a pair of cardboard dice showing how humans were tipping the odds toward climate troubles. Notably, perhaps because of old glue, the paper black dots were falling off. (emphasis added)
The more I think about Dr. Hansen's metaphor, the more impressed I am.  In 1988, he was able to come up with a very simple explanation of how humans were affecting the climate--so simple that almost anyone could understand it.  My profession is communications, and I can tell you from long experience, that's not easy to do.

In addition to being simple, it's a very accurate (perfect?) description of a scientific phenomenon that is becoming more and more obvious as time goes on, and the perfect response to those who (1) point to a remarkably cold or snowy day as proof that global warming doesn't exist or (2) (accurately) state that any short stretch of weather doesn't prove the climate is changing.  No, a short stretch of record hot weather doesn't prove anything, but we are loading the climate dice, and it's exactly the type of weather that we'll be seeing more and more of as time passes, because we've changed the odds and the "old normal" no longer applies.

I'd like to encourage everyone who shares my concern about global warming, and about the remarkably poor job most mass media are doing of communicating the issue, to bring up the topic of "loading the dice" as often as possible.  It's simple, it's accurate, and there's not, to my knowledge, an easy and simple denier response.  Regrettably, after all this time, many newspaper and broadcast journalists still don't get this most basic explanation of the effect of human-caused climate change on weather.

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