Extreme Weather Events & Climate Zombie Theories

In the United States, climate skepticism runs rampant.

I attended a talk called “Communicating Irma Raises Questions” with Dr. Shepard, a well-known local meteorologist who shares accessible strategies to each everyone about climate change.

There are many challenges of communicating climate science. A selection of these challenges that he addressed in his talk included:

  • skepticism (usually as a result of political party association)
  • cognitive bias
  • the Dunning-Kruger effect (people assume they know more than they do)
  • the existence of climate zombie theories.

I’ll start with the stuff on zombies which is probably why you chose to read this in the first place. Much to my disappointment, the talk had little to do with zombies. Shepard shared the idea of Climate Zombie theories, which are myths about climate change that continue to “live” despite the scientific community having “killed” it.

Let’s get back to the basics. People don’t even understand the difference between weather and climate. This speaks to an appalling lack of climate literacy in the United States. Dr. Shepard shared a helpful phrase for the climate illiterate:

“Weather is your mood. Climate is your personality.”

Your mood doesn’t tell me anything about your personality, just like this week’s weather doesn’t tell me anything about climate change. This refutes the “climate zombie theory” asserting that cold weather in the short-term disproves the existence of global warming/

Additionally, people don’t see meteorology as a rigorous scientific discipline, because they know all about weather…it affects them every day. Thus, many people believe they can make accurate and informed predictions (little do they know that the process of climate modeling involves complex physics, differential equations, and an applied version of fluid dynamics). This phenomenon of “false credentials” leads people to believe perceived “experts” on weather, including the Farmer’s Almanac and the Groundhog, which have zero credibility. Hate to break it to you, but whether or not the Groundhog sees his shadow has absolutely no impact on the length of winter.

Dr. Shepard also questioned whether storm threats are over-communicated and “blown” out of proportion (HAHA storm pun) through social media platforms.Information gets distorted as it travels from the news cycle to random posts on Facebook and 140 character tweets that sacrifice accuracy for wow-factor and retweets. Misinformation occurs, especially with respect to technical meteorological terms, like the “cone of uncertainty.” I was appalled to hear that many people evacuated from East to West Florida, simply moving from one part of the cone to another.

The scientific method requires climate scientists to be “careful and objective.” Nonetheless, their acknowledgment of the uncertainty in data causes people to question their results. As a solution, Shepard proposed that scientists become more forthright about the risks associated with climate change. However, this strategy is unlikely to be implemented in the scientific community, as talking too much about individual and societal risks of climate change would be interpreted as inappropriate activism.

Instead, we are better suited to adopt some of the more realistic solutions for climate communication strategies. For example, it is important to share the localized impacts of climate effects to communicate the urgency of climate action. For example, it is better to show a picture of rising sea level in Tybee Island to a Georgian rather than the threatened small island nations lying far away in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

As a low-lying barrier island, Tybee Island is already vulnerable to frequent and widespread flooding. According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the community has experienced 10in of sea level rise in the last 80 years. Scientists expect this to rise in the future.

Finally, a communication strategy that really stood out to me from the talk was his clarification of the connection between climate change and extreme weather events. It is not that climate change is causing more weather events; rather they are increasing in intensity. He uses a basketball analogy. If you add 3-4 feet to the floor, then anyone can dunk a basketball. Climate change is loading the dice (raising the floor) to make more intense future weather events.
Step aside, Irma and Harvey, there could more extreme storms on the way…

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