How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Climate Change

This past weekend, while tens of millions sweltered and withered in the triple-digit heat and all-time heat records snapped like matchsticks across the eastern United States, I had a small epiphany: We need climate change.  Just think about it.  What would our society do without it?  

In our day, records, we might say, especially if preceded with that scintillating qualifier “all-time,” are the opiate of the masses, and hence the lifeblood of the media.  In every area of human endeavor, increasingly sated by the sheer ubiquity of entertainment and “news,” we have come to require an extra source of stimulus to keep us interested.  Merely winning a game or an award is not enough—“unprecedented” feats must be achieved, records must be broken.  But of course, the problem with records is that, almost by definition, they should usually become more and more difficult to break as time goes on, and hence more and more rarely broken.  It is relatively easy to establish a new record when they’ve only just started keeping them; rather more difficult when they’ve been tracking for a couple hundred years.  (I was reminded of this recently when a garden-variety warm spell in Scotland prompted a newspaper headline to exclaim “Record-breaking heat hits Scotland”; upon looking more closely, I learned that one recording station had managed to beat its record for that date, and that station had been established in 2007.) 

And so we have had to come up with ways of outwitting the recalcitrance of the record books, and the ways in which we have done so are a testimony to human ingenuity.   

The simplest, cheapest, and most versatile means of “record inflation” is of course inflation itself, usable in any context where the records in question are economic (which nowadays, means almost any context).  The simple fact that money is forever becoming less valuable means that, for any record measured in dollar amounts, one can indefinitely keep establishing new records.  “The largest bankruptcy in history”; “the largest IPO in history”; “the largest budget deficit in history,” etc.  This fact has proven particularly useful in the entertainment history, which thrives on the collective buzz we all receive at the mention of the word “record.”  Box office statistics accordingly give the impression that we are forever being overwhelmed with brilliant, immensely successful films, each more wildly triumphant than the previous, despite our nagging sense that today’s films feel more like an epidemic of mediocrity.  Indeed, box office statistics, not content with the benefits of inflation (and ticket prices have risen faster than the average inflation rate) and of ever-increasing populations and theater counts, have resorted to additional stratagems, such as premium-priced 3D and IMAX tickets, gimmicks like midnight showings, and more, to make sure they are always establishing new records.


In pursuits where physical rather than financial achievement is at stake, the record barriers cannot be so easily swept aside.  After all, the human body does not naturally inflate in its capacities as time goes on, and medicinal and nutritional advances can only do so much.  The bluntest way of confronting this problem is the steroid, by which human muscles can indeed be inflated by artificial means.  This has proven baseball’s preferred means of supplying the needed record inflation; unfortunately, however, it tends only to achieve consistently positive effects on batting statistics, so baseball has increasingly lagged behind in the record generation race, perhaps part of the reason for its decline in popularity. 

Basketball has discovered a more elegant solution, one that requires no physical intervention in the sport: simply invent new record categories.  After all, there really is almost no theoretical limit to the number of different records that could be tracked.  If you have the choice between reporting of a game, “The Miami Heat trounced the Lakers tonight after a sterling performance by Lebron James” and saying, “In a stunning performance against the Lakers tonight, Lebron James established a new record for consecutive games with at least 24 points, 12 rebounds, and 6 assists against teams from California!” which would you choose?  It’s a no-brainer, as the sports journalism industry has shown us.

The Olympic Games, as might be expected, has pooled the best ideas from different sports to address this problem, making extensive use of steroids and record category invention, plus its own specialty—new forms of scorekeeping.  By overhauling the scoring systems used in gymnastics and figure skating, the Olympics gave competitors a clean slate for creating new record scores, which was a boon to commentators tired of breathlessly informing the public, “That was the first time anyone’s ever landed a triple-axle, triple-toe-loop, double-jump combination in international competition, although last year we did see a triple-axle, triple-jump, double-toe-loop combination several times!”  But the Olympics’ bread-and-butter, when it comes to record inflation, is technological innovation.  New shoes and new ergonomically-designed suits can get runners to the finish line several tenths of a second faster than Harold Abrahams in those old-fashioned white shorts.  Best of all, in swimming, not only can they forever tweak the suit design, but the swimming pool design as well.  Both in Sydney and Beijing, bedazzled audiences were treated to a stunning barrage of record-breaking thanks to “the fastest pools ever designed.”  I have little doubt that scientists preparing for the London Olympics have been experimenting with ways to create frictionless water.  


Weather, then, is the last great unconquerable frontier.  Lying outside the realm of human manipulation (so we had thought), it seemed doomed to thwart our record-breaking ambitions.  Left to itself, nature was sure to produce fewer and fewer “unprecedented” events the longer we sat around observing it closely.  To be sure, you will occasionally get the heat wave that comes along to set a new record at a station with 200 years of observations, but unfortunately, it’s not likely to happen again for at least 200 years, statistically speaking.  Meteorologists have of course made extensive use of the record category invention strategy, so that it is not uncommon to read reports like this, “While not setting any absolute record maximums, this heat wave did establish a new record at several sites for consecutive days with a maximum above 90 degrees and a minimum above 70 degrees.”  But this strategy is heavily subject to the law of diminishing returns, especially as the media, always strangely prone to befuddlement when it comes to matters meteorological, find such records too much of a mouthful to report.  No, if the media is to whip up the masses into a frenzy of glued-to-the-screen enthusiasm, they need a steady stream of snappy-sounding new records to report.  

For this, climate change is our savior, providing a veritable ratings bonanza over the past decade or two.  Worst heat waves, worst cold waves, strongest low pressure systems, biggest blizzards, strongest hurricanes, most hurricanes, earliest hurricanes, latest hurricanes, most tornadoes, strongest tornadoes, worst floods, worst droughts, warmest months, “ever recorded”—the superlatives roll on and on.  And best of all, since climate change should keep on worsening for the foreseeable future, we can count on all these new records being broken over and over again.  What more could a weather buff want?

8 thoughts on “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Climate Change

  1. And more suffering, displacement, deaths, destruction and ecosystem decline than ever recorded!Flippancy is a luxury of the comfortable; or the last refuge of the desperate. Yet humour can turn old news into new ground, re-drawing our attention back to uncomfortable truths we'd rather not face. The truth is, we're not in an old world starved of novelty and requiring the invention of the ever-new in order to sate our curiosity; we're in a world of stunning (and disturbing) novelty at every turn, a world increasingly of our own (generally unwitting) fabrication, so unlike the planet on which our grandparents lived that some commentators think we need to change the name of the planet to reflect this.It is not just global temperatures, but pretty much every measure of human influence over the last few centuries/millennia is best represented by a "hockey-stick" graph, starting with population and consumption and extending to almost every conceivable nook and cranny of the globe. Economic inflation is in one sense the symptom, rather than the cause, of a much broader anthropic inflation in which the human becomes ever larger and more dominant, the stakes higher, the risks greater, the impending collapse more catastrophic. With such a background, who needs "faster, stronger, higher" except those unable or unwilling to turn from distraction to see the real show?


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    It's not clear to me whether this is intended as a criticism of this post or not; the second sentence sounds like it may not be. In any case, in case it is (or even if it isn't, in case others should feel the need to critique), here's a defence, along the lines of the second sentence.The allusion to Dr. Strangelove was deliberate. That movie, of course, despite an obvious objective of wanting to be quite funny (as I was obviously wanting to be funny, and I would want to argue that black comedy is a legitimate genre), is not merely being flippant, but intending to make a serious point through humor: to, though pretending to praise it, point out the absurdity of the mutual assured destruction policy to which the US was committed and encourage people to rethink it. Likewise, the point here was to use irony and humor to point out the absurdity of how blandly and cheerfully most Americans face the real dangers of climate change. For most, I expect, the dramatic weather news stories of the past few years have been notable more for their drama and entertainment value than as serious wake-up calls (that, at any rate, was me a few years ago). Of course, it is important to understand my audience to understand the "flippancy" of a post like this. A lot of people I know who will probably be reading this would dismiss out of hand a serious, doom-and-gloom post about climate change, however well-warranted and well-supported. However, they just might be led to think twice about the matter if given the benefit of an ironic distance from which to approach it. (Of course, now I've shown my hand to any such people reading this post, which may spoil the point.)And of course, a secondary serious objective of the post was to point out the absurdity of our culture's constant quest for titillating novelty in every sphere; as you say, if real, threatening novelty is upon us, such an obsession looks foolish indeed.


  3. Yep, I was being deliberately ambiguous. I agree that black humour has a serious place in cultural change, however, it can also have a deadly serious role as a paralysing displacement behaviour. Hence the attempted ambivalence of my comment.I did actually appreciate the humour of the post and think you succeed in raising the moral issue of the pursuit of novelty. Such a point can be developed in a number of interesting ways. "The ever new as the ever same" is a phrase from Walter Benjamin which captures something of the soporific effect of capitalism's obsession with pointless novelty, while a quote by the radical conservative quote Tomasi di Lampedusa captures something of the alternative:Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga come è, bisogna che tutto cambi!If we want things to stay as they are, everything must change!


  4. At the risk of now seeming like I haven't got the joke, I'd like to turn briefly to the actual content of the novelty in this post – rising temperatures – in order to note a few points that many people may not be aware of. I'll quote a recent post by a group of eminent scientists and communicators attempting to summarise current understanding of climate change and heat waves."Climate change is already affecting extreme weather. The National Academy of Sciences reports that the hottest days are now hotter. And the fingerprint of global warming behind this change has been firmly identified."Since 1950 the number of heat waves worldwide has increased, and heat waves have become longer. The hottest days and nights have become hotter and more frequent. In the past several years, the global area hit by extremely unusual hot summertime temperatures has increased 50-fold. Over the contiguous United States, new record high temperatures over the past decade have consistently outnumbered new record lows by a ratio of 2:1. In 2012, the ratio for the year through June 18 stands at more than 9:1. Though this ratio is not expected to remain at that level for the rest of the year, it illustrates how unusual 2012 has been, and how these types of extremes are becoming more likely."And according to a 2011 study by climate scientists at Stanford, the United States is “likely to undergo extreme summer temperature shifts within 60 years.” Noah Diffenbaugh, the study's lead author, was quoted as saying, “According to our projections, large areas of the globe are likely to warm up so quickly that, by the middle of this century, even the coolest summers will be hotter than the hottest summers of the past 50 years.”So, plenty of material for future weather-buffs to get excited about. As life as we know it passes from existence.


  5. Coming at this from another angle: if climate change is making weather interesting again by enabling more new records, then this would explain why it is so important for the mainstream media to do all they can to keep their audience in the dark about climate change, lest they take away the fun of reporting extreme weather and new records. If it were generally known that the records were being broken due to climate change, then this would be akin to discovering that your favourite record-breaking athlete is on steroids. It makes the record-breaking somehow more predictable and less interesting. Far better for them to have been on steroids and the rest of us kept in the dark: that way, we can pretend that we are witnessing a true genius at work. If the weather is on steroids (which is an image frequently used by climate communicators, by the way), then the records don't really "count".So better to just hear about all the droughts, storms, floods and sea ice records tumbling and never mention the doping. Then we can image we're just watching a champion in whose reflected glory we can bask and feel good about having been born at such a time that we can witness it flower.


  6. Brad Littlejohn

    Interesting thoughts, Byron, which certainly seem to follow from the (admittedly exaggerated) narrative I sketched here. Of course, one wouldn't want to take it too far—obviously, there are much greater incentives for the media to be too silent about climate change than mere desire to make weather records sound impressive. But I do wonder whether this general dynamic—not wanting to admit the planet is on steroids, because that takes the fun out of it—is part of the picture.


  7. It was my own little attempt at some black humour. My earlier posts were a little too humourless, reflecting my state of mind a few days ago. I agree that the reasons for the media failure are complex and that this probably isn't really a factor. More salient features include: loss of specialist science reporters (and so decline in scientific literacy amongst reporters); false balance where climate science is treated as political opinion, where representatives of both "sides" have to be mentioned in every article (when really, the main scientific debates are between those who think our trajectory will likely be disastrous and those who think it will be catastrophic); audience apathy/fatigue; the sheer complexity of the issues involved in a soundbite culture; the unspeakable economic and cultural implications of taking the science seriously (the kinds of changes required to minimise the chances of very serious consequences generally fall outside the scope of "acceptable" or even "thinkable"); well-funded and co-ordinated misinformation campaigns by vested interests; editorial intrusion/influence from ideological opponents with media control; and probably various other factors that don't jump to mind right now.A couple more links:Jeff Masters on the recent heatwave: "This is just the beginning".And Leo Hickman gathers a number of very useful quotes from top attribution researchers on linking extreme weather to anthropogenic climate change.


  8. Brad Littlejohn

    Goodness, you have been confusing on this thread! Given your previous comments, I was trying to read you as being partly serious, although it was clearly somewhat over-the-top. In any case, thanks for providing more interesting and relevant links from your bottomless link storehouse!


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