Is climate change becoming too normal?

A recent study suggests that we quickly get used to unusual weather, which has troubling implications for our ability to motivate people to support measures that will protect us from global climate change.  The study measured the literal remarkability of different temperatures by seeing how much comment they generated on Twitter. Hot and cold conditions both generated lots of posts, particularly if they were unusual for a particular place and time of year.    But temperatures quickly became unremarkable: after just a couple of years of strange temperatures, people stopped tweeting about them. The best estimate is that  people base their idea of normal weather on what happened in the last two to eight years.

Climate change gradually changes the weather people experience from year to year. Very large warming is projected for the 21st century in the absence of a comprehensive plan to save the planet.  But if people forget what weather was like eight years ago and more these unprecedented conditions won’t feel particularly unusual to people experiencing them.  Moreover, natural variability in the climate system means we could continue to be surprised by weather that seems cold, even when that “cold” weather is far warmer than the natural baseline.

The tale of the boiling frog has long been used to describe the dangers posed by change that happens slowly relative to people’s perception and memory. The apocryphal story compares a frog dropped into a pot of boiling water, who jumps out right away, to a frog placed in a pot of cold water that is gradually heated up. This frog never recognises the danger he is in and eventually boils to death. The risk is that slowly worsening environmental conditions lull us into a false sense of normalcy.

The findings suggest we may be at risk of becoming boiling frogs – but they don’t determine that fate. No one alive today remembers “pre-industrial” conditions, yet there are plenty of records we can use to give us the longer-term context critical for understanding climate change. We need to be aware of how our own perceptions of normal versus unusual weather might slip over time, and of the growing disconnect between those perceptions and true natural conditions 50 or 100 years ago.

 We need to keep the right perspective on the weather we are experiencing and recognise just how unusual things are in the historical or even geological context.

( based on New Scientist article 24 March 2019.  Journal reference: PNASDOI: 10.1073/pnas.1816541116.Frances Moore, the author, is an assistant professor of environmental science and policy at the University of California, Davis).

My comment: At the risk of being labelled a Jonah, climate change is going to result in mass migration and inevitable mass violence.  Climate change has already contributed to the Syrian war and the chronic instability in  North Africa and Central America.  Faced with an escalation of the current trends I forecast that eventually everyone, even the corrupt people with vested interests,  will “get it”.   It will be a matter of survival.  Not noticing minor changes in the weather will seem irrelevant to a world turned upside down, its people starving.

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