≡ Menu

Tierney on "Availability Entrepreneurs" and "Availability Cascades"

For several reasons, this New Year’s Day article by New York Times science writer John Tierney is a must-read.  Here are the opening several paragraphs:

I’d like to wish you a happy New Year, but I’m afraid I have a different sort of prediction.

You’re in for very bad weather. In 2008, your television will bring
you image after frightening image of natural havoc linked to global warming.
You will be told that such bizarre weather must be a sign of dangerous
climate change — and that these images are a mere preview of what’s in
store unless we act quickly to cool the planet.

Unfortunately, I can’t be more specific. I don’t know if disaster
will come by flood or drought, hurricane or blizzard, fire or ice. Nor
do I have any idea how much the planet will warm this year or what that
means for your local forecast. Long-term climate models cannot explain
short-term weather.

But there’s bound to be some weird weather somewhere, and we will
react like the sailors in the Book of Jonah. When a storm hit their
ship, they didn’t ascribe it to a seasonal weather pattern. They
quickly identified the cause (Jonah’s sinfulness) and agreed to an
appropriate policy response (throw Jonah overboard).

Today’s interpreters of the weather are what social scientists call
availability entrepreneurs: the activists, journalists and
publicity-savvy scientists who selectively monitor the globe looking
for newsworthy evidence of a new form of sinfulness, burning fossil

A year ago, British meteorologists made headlines predicting that
the buildup of greenhouse gases would help make 2007 the hottest year
on record. At year’s end, even though the British scientists reported
the global temperature average was not a new record — it was actually
lower than any year since 2001 — the BBC confidently proclaimed, “2007
Data Confirms Warming Trend.”

When the Arctic sea ice last year hit the lowest level ever recorded
by satellites, it was big news and heralded as a sign that the whole
planet was warming. When the Antarctic sea ice last year reached the
highest level ever recorded by satellites, it was pretty much ignored.
A large part of Antarctica has been cooling recently, but most coverage
of that continent has focused on one small part that has warmed.