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  • Moetasim Ashfaq

Hasty attributions a worrying trend

I've been sneezing and coughing a lot lately. I've had scratchy throats, and my mood has fluctuated between fine and irritable. Could this be climate change? It might sound a bit far-fetched, but hear me out. I sneezed and coughed 42% more in the past week alone. Maybe I am overdoing it with pepper at dinner or overeating candies from the basket in the office next door, but still, it's a trend!

 

So, I did a little self-directed attribution study—nothing too fancy, just me, my memories of past sneeziness and cough, and a calculator. I found a 27% chance that this rampage is related to climate change. I mean, if global temperatures are rising, then pollen counts are probably through the roof, right? And if I'm sneezing, it got to be because of all the extra pollen floating around due to those darn greenhouse gases. Either that, or my cat's been sleeping in my pillowcase again, or I haven't cleaned my air conditioner filter since, um, ever? But I'm betting it’s climate change.

 

I have studied climate change since I interviewed for my first job two decades ago and blamed the ozone hole for global warming. I was a computational physics major, and back then, you still qualified for the positions after giving such an answer because not many were studying climate change. The world has grown a lot, though, ever since, from the debate about what is causing climate change to the discussion of what is not caused by climate change. Well, partly because the world has also become ~0.8 degrees Celsius warmer since then, and we have more data on extremes, and everyone has a smartphone and access to social media …

 

I still vividly remember two extreme precipitation events: 620 mm of rain in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, in July 2001 and ~950mm in Mumbai, India, in July 2005, both in 24 hours. The attributions were different then: mother nature fury, freaky cloud burst, HAARP conspiracies, urbanization, etc. I bet you would not hear a thing other than one phrase, “climate change,” if those events were to happen today. 

 

I may come across as overly negative; after all, it is all about perceptions, but believe me, I have done nothing but investigate climate change for my living and passion throughout my career since incorrectly blaming the ozone hole. But this drumbeat of everything big and small is climate change, now making me worried that climate change euphoria is casting shadows on objectivity. Found a spider in the closet? Climate change. Left milk boiling on the stove? Climate change, probably. Forgot your wife’s birthday? Yep, you guessed it—!

 

What troubles me is that, across many regions, we still lack a comprehensive understanding of climate variability drivers. This gap in knowledge means that, in the case of an unprecedented event, our attribution frameworks are often tuned to predict a higher probability of that event in the current warmer world, particularly over regions with no prior history of such events. While climate change attribution is still plausible, it requires a systematic explanation rooted in a solid understanding of the underlying mechanisms, which is often lacking. 

 

Take the example of the Arabian Peninsula and the April 16 excessive rains and flooding in the UAE. My recently graduated PhD student spent the first two and half years studying drivers of precipitation variability over this region.  He almost gave up on it after getting frustrated that no two observation datasets matched in the region; all global teleconnections were like global confusions, very subjective, and depended on the period, data source, length of season, etc. It all makes sense, though. Even in the rainy season, it barely rains in the region, and interannual variability is very high. Models generate rains that do not match the observed distribution, and predictability is understandably marginal at longer lead times.

 

Knowing all that, if someone tells me ENSO and climate change upped the odds of UAE floods, I’d be like, “Where can I get a dose of that confidence?”

 

These estimates may not be way off target, though. There is a message between the lines. Remember, at the start of winter, the seasonal forecasts were like, "Brace yourselves! El Niño is coming in hot, promising heavy punches of above-normal winter precipitation to the region”. But forget about those extra deliveries of showers; the region didn't even see its average precipitation until late January. Then, come April, El Niño realized its broken promises and decided to unload all those rainwater packages as Black Friday deliveries all at once.

 

The good news is that we can reasonably explain the potential drivers of unusual April in UAE and Central Southwest Asia, just like we explained the unusual dry start to the winter season in the region. … no denying that climate change, in a broader sense, can be a factor in the UAE floods, but the truth is not as simple as it appears in these flashy news headlines.  The truth is boring; the truth is complicated, and it requires another blog, so if you want to know, yawn, and get bored, please click here ==>

 

So, rewinding to the original point, at the start of the 21st century, we were attributing long-term global trends to climate change. Fast-forward two decades, and we have advanced to attributions of single-day local events. With this speed, I am sure that day is not very far when attribution granularity reaches individuals, and the connection between my cough & sneezing and climate change is confirmed.

 

But the question is, do we want this fast climate justice—climate change found guilty on all known and unknown charges—personalized and localized, delivered right after the event, like Amazon Prime? Or should we leave some things to Mother Nature, being Mother Nature? Perhaps not!

2 comments

2 Comments


enda.obrien
May 02

I agree with you that "climate change" has replaced "the fairies at the end of the garden" as the go-to explanation for anything out of the ordinary these days. It carries the risk of devaluing real climate change, much as a lawyer overstating his case can cause him to actually lose it. My own anecdote is that you cannot offer to teach a course or give a talk on "climate" now - it has to be on "climate change".


Meanwhile, the science of attribution of specific events to climate change really isn't that hard to understand, especially if you have histograms or statistical distributions of such events from past observations along with future projections. When some extreme event happens, yo…

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Moetasim Ashfaq
Moetasim Ashfaq
May 03
Replying to

Thank you, Enda, for your feedback. We are on the same page. Science should always be grounded in reason and objective analysis rather than emotions or political correctness. Spreading misinformation or incomplete interpretations of events to advance a narrative is a disservice to science. Such sensationalism will not solve climate change or help protect the natural and human systems affected by human activity. 

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