Why is the weather going mad? Humanity’s limitless stupidity, that’s why

The weather these past years seems to have gone mad, and not just in New Zealand – though here it’s been bad enough, we’ve had successions of intense storms with record-breaking wind speeds.

Wellington was in chaos for days after a ‘one in a century’ storm in June – our third in a decade – knocked out power to tens of thousands of homes, felled trees and smashed commuter infrastructure.

Two mornings after, and still raining. Photo I took of debris on Petone Beach. Storm surges drove timber from the Hutt river right up on to the road here.
My photo of debris on Petone Beach, June 2013.

The Dutch half of my family tell me that, over in the Netherlands, winter decided to give spring and summer a miss. It never warmed up until a couple of weeks before summer was due to end. Nothing seemed to stop the rain.

The Hutt river, looking south towards the rail bridge. Usually there's a lot more water in it than this.
Drought 2013, Hutt river. Usually there’s more water in it.

This week Boulder, Colorado, was awash with 1-in-1000 year floods – I picked the story up via blogs, and then news came of a couple of Kiwis living there who had to flee before the deluge. (Check out Susie Lindau’s blog, in my links. and Phil Plait’s awesome science blog ).

Meanwhile Japan – including the damaged reactor at Fukishima  – is being hammered by Typhoon Man-Yi. Half a million people have been ordered to evacuate.

I have an interest in understanding this because I’ve been writing a book on coal, environment and our attitudes (coming out next year). So is all this global storminess a coincidence? Mathematically, that’s possible. Random events – to human perception – appear to cluster. But there is a common cause. A recent analysis attributed about half the recent extreme weather to human-created climate change. Bearing in mind that ‘climate’ and ‘weather’ are not the same thing,  we’re facing the first obvious consequence of our 250 year crusade to dump fossil carbon into the atmosphere.

I’ll blog later about the science of climate change. To me, though, the way things are panning out reveals a great deal about the human condition.

My reasoning at the broadest level is this. We’ve been playing our usual trick of exploiting resources until they’re gone. That was an essential survival skill in the last Ice Age. Other species of human – the Neanderthals, the Denisovians, the ‘Hobbits’, all died. H. Sapiens alone survived – we had, it seemed, the ‘tude (it seems to have been a function of our greater ‘working memory’).

A diagram I made of where we think everybody was, mostly, using my trusty Celestia installation and some painting tools.
A diagram I made using my trusty Celestia installation and some painting tools.

It worked a treat when the human population was a few thousand. When environments were exploited, people moved on – or dwindled, as on Easter Island. But it got industrialised. World population was around a billion in 1800. Factories, locomotives, ships and households in burgeoning cities began pouring coal smoke into the air. Humanity began exploiting the environment not on a regional scale, but globally.

There was but one outcome – the biggest ‘own goal’ in the history of the world, and we’re staring down that barrel now. Into which, as far as I can tell, has swept that other component of the human condition; stupidity – intellectualised, given traction by its rational gloss. But still stupidity.

It’s evident in the way we’ve reacted to climate change. It’s been emotionalised, rationalised, politicised, reduced to catchechisms, polarised between ‘warmists’ and ‘deniers’. All for reasons that have little to do with science, and a lot to do with vested interest, political need, even personal conviction over what constitutes reality. All of it slowing efforts to understand what is happening – then take steps to fix it.

Look at it this way. Past biomass – mostly plants – built up over tens and hundreds of millions of years, has been dug up as coal, gas and oil, then burned in what, by geological standards, is an eye-blink. We’ve dumped the waste products of all those millions of years worth of ancient ecosystems into Earth’s current system in just 250 years – which, when we’re thinking on these scales – amounts to one swift hit. It’s like taking a century’s worth of household rubbish and trying to jam it into a bag that’s only good to hold the rubbish from this morning. And then we try to rationalise our way out of the consequences?

I mean – duh! What did we think was going to happen?

The people at the receiving end of unprecedented weather events are the first victims.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up this weekend: “Write It Now” and “Sixty Second Writing Tips” return.


13 thoughts on “Why is the weather going mad? Humanity’s limitless stupidity, that’s why

  1. I could not agree more. As to your question, any coherent thought is and has been rare. It is as if no one wants to admit to what is so apparent, at least not until it is their neighborhood. Well, done, Matthew.

  2. And what, may I ask, ever happened to Zero Population Growth, a driving force in the US in the 1960s and 70s? A booming world population adds to the insanity. More people consume more resources faster, destroying fragile ecosystems as they spread into previously uninhabited (by humans) land.

    1. The essence of the problem. And even if developed nations have got it under control and others are following, the numbers we have even at stability are scary large by comparison with what populations were.

  3. In SA it’s the same. Up north we haven’t had winter yet – only about two weeks of really cold weather early in June. The rest of the time was akin to a cool autumn. Meanwhile in the Western Cape it’s still snowing at the end of September – it even snowed on Table Mountain which isn’t nearly high enough for that type of precipitation.

  4. I hate to be such a pessimist, but I do suspect that the ‘own goal’ you describe is perhaps the answer to the Fermi paradox. Perhaps all life, even that which is considered ‘intelligent’, implodes before it is able to settle outside of its home solar system or even planet.

    It is hard to fathom what life on earth would be like in 100, 500 or 1000 years if our population growth and use of resources continues at the current rate.

    1. I think you’re right. Certainly self-implosion would answer a lot of questions about why we haven’t found anyone. My fear about life here even 500 years from now is that if we aren’t careful it will be a new Stone Age.

  5. Hey, Matthew. The weather has certainly been unpredictable Down Under. The only prediction I’m going to make is that TeamNZ are going to win the America’s Cup. I know, that’s got nothing to do with the weather, but hey, they’ll be a storm of excitement released in NZ as soon as they hurry it up. 🙂 There’s tension, and then there’s tension. Sailing is certainly a heart-pounding sport. Have a great day.

    1. I was on Lambton Quay this morning when the street suddenly filled up with people and cellphones – the first race was over, and we’d lost. But I figure yeah, we’ll win it!

  6. The first thing I ever heard about climate change was that “98%” (or some relatively overwhelming majority of that order) of climate scientists agreed that the climate is changing and the cause is anthropocentric. Without going into the warmist/denier debate, I’m somewhat concerned over the “science by consensus” idea. The fact that scientists agree (and where does that percentage come from, anyway?) doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right, and I suspect one could come up with a considerable number of examples where one maverick eventually brought down the house of consensus. Climate science is an enormously complex, multidisciplinary field; one question that might be asked is, how well do the life-science types and the physical science types communicate? That’s two different mind sets just for starters. So I confess the “consensus” makes me skeptical from the beginning.

    Does that mean anthropocentric global warming is a wrong conclusion? Nope. Just that it’s hard for a layman to sort through all this, and Matthew, I admire your willingness to give it a try. I’ll be interested to see what you come up with.

    That said, should we clean up our environment? Of course we should! Why is it even a question?

    Get rid of fossil fuels? I think that’s just a matter of time — and not very much time, either. Been following the research on cold fusion, for example? Then maybe we can use electricity to power our cars…not as much fun as a muscle car, maybe, but as long as it gets you from Point A to Point B, who really cares?

    1. It’s an enormously difficult situation, and a complex one that is going to demand multi-disciplinary approaches and a good synthesis.

      I have to say that the notion of scientists (or any intellectual discipline) actually coming to ‘consensus’ is an oxymoron. I am not convinced about the worth of the peer-review process, either. We do need checks and balances, but I think it gets hijacked by personalities, in crowds and even politics. Sometimes I think it works (for instance, I was asked recently by a US historical-academic journal to review a paper on a New Zealand historical topic – entirely out of the blue – I didn’t know them, and they didn’t know me). But other times the process has more to do with enforcing in-crowds and agendas.

      I come to the climate issue myself from a position of some inside understanding – I did physics before I turned to history and my first significant history job, ironically, was working with a couple of scientists looking into historical climate change (they were arguing over the exact details). That was in 1983 (gak!). The biggest problem, I think, is the immense complexity of the world’s climatic system coupled with the patchy nature of the data, certainly across the range and history we need to get meaningful science out of it. Nobody can agree on the specifics of the mechanisms, particularly. But there’s no doubt something is going on – and, for all the way that different disciplines and studies argue, it’s hard not to see humanity as one of the common factors behind it.

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