This is the latest video I’ve produced for the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media.

The template for climate-skeptic responses to bad weather and climate news, like, well, what we’ve seen recently in the northeast, is to quickly trot out some plausible sounding “experts” on Fox News and talk radio, to give plausible sounding boilerplate explanations for whatever is latest in what’s become, for the last 3 or 4 years, a steady parade of extreme weather, unseasonal oddities, and geophysical black swans.

As scientists further investigate the unlikely confluence of forces that came together to produce Superstorm Sandy, a prime area of interest will be the effects of vast expanses of relatively warm Arctic Ocean water that have in recent years been uncovered by disappearing polar sea ice.  Last spring, I reported here on my conversations with scientists like Dr Jennifer Francis, whose recent work has focused on the effects of arctic warmth on the jet stream.  In a September interview, Dr. Francis, noting this year’s spectacular collapse in arctic sea ice, looked forward to an “interesting” fall and winter.  And so it has been.

But for climate skeptics, the go-to talking point in discussions of arctic sea ice has for several years been, “but sea ice around Antarctica, in the south, is growing”, implying that the whole thing is a wash, the planet’s net energy balance is stable, and “alarmists” are cherry picking the arctic numbers to distort the picture.

The most reliable graph of global sea ice, used by just about everyone, is easily available at the University of Illinois Cryosphere Today site, and makes it clear that for the last several decades, the general trend of global sea ice is down.  To further confirm that, I talked to Dr. Claire Parkinson, of the Goddard Space Flight Center, and Dr. Marilyn Raphael, an Antarctic sea ice expert at UCLA.

The video is a quick, informative 7 minutes, and I hope, worth your time – but, spoiler alert, here’s the cliff notes synopsis:

Q. Bottom line. Is there more or less sea ice globally, now, than there was 30 years ago?

Dr. Parkinson: There is less sea ice globally now than there was 30 years ago.

I interviewed Dr. Jeff Masters at his home in southeast Michigan for the video above, that appeared last spring, part of the Yale Climate Forum series.  The vid summarized the emergence of several papers that were beginning to tie together some loose ends connecting the loss of arctic sea ice with the increase in extreme weather events in the temperate zones of the northern hemisphere.  Hurricane Sandy is going to be studied for some time by scientists looking for clues as to why she behaved as she did, and the trail starts here.

Dr. Jeff Masters WeatherUnderground:

We’re used to seeing hurricane-battered beaches and flooded cities in Florida, North Carolina, and the Gulf Coast. But to see these images from the Jersey Shore and New York City in the wake of Hurricane Sandy is a shocking experience. New Jersey only rarely gets hit by hurricanes because it lies in a portion of the coast that doesn’t stick out much, and is too far north. How did this happen? How was a hurricane able to move from southeast to northwest at landfall, so far north, and so late in hurricane season? We expect hurricanes to move from east to west in the tropics, where the prevailing trade winds blow that direction. But the prevailing wind direction reverses at mid-latitudes, flowing predominately west-to-east, due to the spin of the Earth. Hurricanes that penetrate to about Florida’s latitude usually get caught up in these westerly winds, and are whisked northeastwards, out to sea. However, the jet stream, that powerful band of upper-atmosphere west-to-east flowing air, has many dips and bulges.

These troughs of low pressure and ridges of high pressure allow winds at mid-latitudes to flow more to the north or to the south. Every so often, a trough in the jet stream bends back on itself when encountering a ridge of high pressure stuck in place ahead of it. These “negatively tilted” troughs have winds that flow from southeast to northwest. It is this sort of negatively tilted trough that sucked in Sandy and allowed the hurricane to take such an unusual path into New Jersey.

Figure 1. Inlet section of Atlantic City, N.J., after Hurricane Sandy. Image credit: 6 ABC Action News.

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The video above is 7 minutes long, but if you missed it on Rachel Maddow’s show last night, take the time, as it is a brilliant summation of what is wrong with half the US political system. (there’s things wrong with the other half too, but that’s for another post)

The election threw a bright spotlight on the elaborate mechanisms that the right wing has erected to defend itself against reality.  Such defenses are very human, and universal, and often more or less harmless, as when we lie to ourselves about that extra few pounds we’re carrying, or whether we’re losing our hair. But sometimes self deception can actually put our physical survival in jeopardy. As Orwell pointed out -

We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, is possible to carry this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.

Is this post-superstorm election the battlefield where the Republican party got bumped hard enough to come to its senses?  Signs are mixed. As a post below shows, the climate denialist base clearly still wants to hold on to their alternative reality. But what about more “mainstream” types? Conservative Rich Lowry, writing in Politico, seems clueless:

Barack Obama is an Ivy League-educated former University of Chicago law lecturer with intellectual pretensions and a wide streak of introversion. If he weren’t president of the United States, he might be a staff writer for The New Yorker. It would be hard to come up with an elitist liberal more stereotypically suited to a populist Republican campaign lambasting him as out of touch.

Yet in two presidential campaigns in a row, Obama has easily bested his Republican opponents on the quality of being in touch with ordinary people. Somewhere Adlai Stevenson — who set the standard for eggheaded liberalism in two losing presidential bids in the 1950s — must wonder how Obama pulls it off.

What were those guys smoking, really?

Meanwhile Christine Todd Whitman, recalling a Mitt Romney who once respected science and had a capacity for moderation, shows at least a glimmer of recognition:

Far-right Republicans woke up today claiming that we tried to win with a moderate and it didn’t work, so the answer is to be more conservative in the future. But exit poll data shows that notion is simply false. 3.5 million more self-identified conservatives voted for McCain/Palin in 2008 than voted for Bush/Cheney in 2004, and the former still lost. The percentage of voters who identified as conservatives has only grown in the last 4 election cycles – from 29 percent in 2000 to 34 percent in 2004 and 2008, and 35 percent in 2012. Yet Romney still lost. Getting more conservatives is not the answer; getting the centrists is.

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Romney knows how to work across the aisle and find sensible solutions with which the majority of Americans could be comfortable – he did it as governor of Massachusetts, and he could have done it as president. But he will not get that opportunity because the fringes of the Republican party dragged him to the right on every conceivable social issue, leaving no room for reasonable dialogue when the general election was upon us.

Both parties are becoming more extreme, but I’m a Republican and I believe that Republicans have better solutions for the problems America faces. The GOP has to break the hold that fringes of the party have over the primary process so that our candidates can campaign and govern from the sensible center. If we fail to learn this lesson, the GOP may be driven to irrelevance before we get another chance.

UPDATE:

This video from the Heritage Action Foundation sounds like a call to double-down on the paranoia – to which I’m tempted to say, “Right on Bro, stick to your guns, you go with that…” — except we really do need all hands on deck, and oriented to reality, to solve this problem.

This story is developing, as is the GOP’s response to being crushed on tuesday, so it’s a little early to draw conclusions – but clearly this seems to be a moment where reflection, if it’s even possible anymore, might happen. I don’t know the answer – I’m just throwing this out for discussion.

I’m reposting below my interview with Chris Mooney on “The Republican Brain”.

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