This is the first in a series of posts examining NOAA’s Climate Change Toolkit for educators. The toolkit is located on NOAA’s Climate Services Portal, at www.climate.gov, under the Education tab.
Climate Change Wildlife and Wildlands. Ecoregions. Case Study – Western Coastline.
The Climate Services Portal contains material geared toward educators. This post will examine the above material, which is a 4-pages case study about the western coastline ecoregion. The case study is broken into 5 parts: (i) general introduction, (ii) impacts of climate change, (iii) spotlight on a species, (iv) profiling a climate steward, and (v) resources for more information.
The introduction provides a relatively straight-forward description of the western coastline ecoregion, and the last section provides links to other information. Other than noting the biased description of the IPCC as the “definitive source of unbiased climate change science,” I will not comment on these two sections and will turn to the three substantive sections in the middle.
Impacts of Climate Change. This section opens by stating that “climate change will affect the habitats of this varied ecoregion in several ways.” This is a relatively strong statement, in that they say it “will affect,” rather than “may affect.” However, from a purely logical standpoint, it is of course true: no one doubts that climate changes over time and that changes have effects, indeed, the effects are the very changes we are talking about. Thus, the statement, read literally, is nearly a tautology, a truism. As a result, we cannot obtain much information from this sentence if we analyze it logically on its face.
On the other hand, the sentence has much more meaning in the colloquial sense in which it was likely intended, namely: changes in climate (perhaps, but not definitively, caused by man), over a relatively short period of time — spanning recent years and the near future, which will have a measurable impact on habitats in the region.
I said the climate change is “perhaps, but not definitively, caused by man,” but the more I think about it, if we permit the sentence to be read that broadly, then it becomes somewhat meaningless along the lines of the initial truism. Certainly the sentence would clash with the remaining discussion in the case study, which at one point refers to climate change as “a new threat” and something that can be mitigated by human efforts. The implication is also that the changes are rather abrupt, from a climatological scale. Thus, I think the only sensible reading of the term “climate change” as used by NOAA in the opening sentence to its substantive discussion, is changes that (i) are relatively abrupt from a climatological standpoint, (ii) will be harmful (a “threat”) to habitats, and (iii) are caused or at least can be mitigated by human activity.
Thus, when NOAA talks about “climate change,” it is talking about much more than the simple fact that climate changes over time. The term carries with it the assumption of negative impacts, as well as human causation/responsibility. Careful readers will note that this use of “climate change” is of course quite consistent with the colloquial usage of the term, and that it implies changes that, if not catastrophic, are at least negative and undesirable. For convenience, we might call this NAGW for Negative Anthropogenic Global Warming, to distinguish it from its more extreme and familiar cousin, CAGW (Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming).
I apologize for taking so long on this point, but given that this is the first post and analysis I have done of NOAA’s Toolkit, I want to make sure that we clearly understand the terminology used by NOAA. This will be critical as we move forward, because often in debates when terminology shifts in meaning, it is a sign that there is something else going on behind the scenes that deserves scrutiny. Nothing problematic so far, but just want to make sure we lay out the issues up front. Enough on that.
Let’s see, where were we. Ah, yes . . .
Having made the strong statement that climate change “will affect” the ecoregion (and again, understanding that we are talking about negative impacts in a relatively short period of time), we might expect the authors to provide some concrete support for what “will” happen. Instead, we are treated to the following: “climate change is expected to cause sea level rise in many areas,” which, in the subsequent sentence further softens to “the Western Coastline could experience an increase in sea level.”
Further, in addition to the expected sea level rise there is additional concern about a possible increase in the frequency of severe storms, based on the following data: “140 years of tide gauge data in San Francisco indicate that the number of severe winter storms has increased since 1950.” This is an interesting link – that of tide gauge data and severe winter storms. The sentence is not quite clear, but I presume it is saying that the period after 1950 experienced more severe winter storms than prior periods of similar length. Or perhaps it is saying that prior to 1950 the number of severe winter storms was relatively flat, and that it began to increase in about 1950, but it is still unclear whether that trend is continuing or declining at this point. Presumably there are some historical records that could be consulted as well, given that people have lived in the San Francisco area during that entire 140 year period. In any event, it would be interesting to know more about how the tide gauges are a proxy for more severe winter storms. If anyone has any readily available information on that front, please let me know.
Spotlight on a Species. This section opens by informing us that the Chinook salmon is “one of the many important species in the Western Coastline ecoregion that is being affected by climate change.” The next three paragraphs provide interesting information about the Chinook salmon’s life cycle and indispensible role in the ecosystem and, insofar as can be accomplished in a brief summary, do a great job of demonstrating that the Chinook salmon is indeed an important species in the Western Coastline ecoregion. Unfortunately, the final paragraph in the section fails to provide any evidence for the authors’ subsequent proposition, namely that the Chinook salmon “is being affected” by climate change. (As an aside, I note that the authors specifically distinguish between “human alteration of landscapes,” for which there is ample evidence, and climate change. The case study is not concerned with the former, only the latter.)
One might have thought that the present tense “is being affected” would be supported by actual examples of human induced climate change affecting the Chinook salmon. Instead, NOAA provides the following to back up their statement of current climate change effects: “Warmer temperatures will likely increase water temperatures which could be harmful to salmon during the spawning, incubation and rearing stages. In addition, these warmer temperatures may also lead to earlier snowmelt and to more precipitation falling as rain, which could lead to higher winter flows in the streams. This increased flow could scour the stream beds and destroy salmon eggs and habitat, thus raising salmon mortality.”
Setting aside for a moment the question of whether temperatures are likely to rise in the future and what may cause the rise, the negative impacts on the Chinook salmon are apparently not here and now, but instead reside in some unspecified location at some undefined future time and at the end of a long inferential trail of “likely’s,” “could’s,” and “may’s.”
I should here pause for a moment to close one final loop in our definitional analysis. NOAA’s example of the Chinook salmon makes it clear that NOAA is using the term “climate change” to refer to the results of warmer temperatures, not just climate changes in general. Added to the negative impacts they discuss, I believe we can now confidently state that NOAA is using the term “climate change” in the sense of NAGW, as I had hinted above.
Profiling a Climate Steward. I won’t take much time on this section other than to point out that NOAA states that “climate change poses a new threat to the salmon population,” because “climate change is expected to cause snow to melt earlier in the year,” altering streamflow patterns, and because “salmon are coldwater fish that could be negatively affected by warmer waters.”
The one silver lining on the distressing scene, is that research indicates “habitat preservation and restoration strategies could have positive impacts on the salmon populations.” This is certainly good news and should be taken into account in determining exactly how much “negative” will exist in NAGW.
Conclusion. The Ecoregion: Western Coastline Case Study is a well-produced and professional-looking introduction to NOAA’s views on climate change impacts in the western coastline ecoregion. As with any brochure or similar brief publication, we should be careful not to make too much about the brevity or lack of detail in the publication. Indeed, from that standpoint, I think NOAA did a good job of putting a decent amount of information in a short, readable form. Unfortunately, the “case study” of climate change impacts that are supposedly happening turns out to be, on closer examination, little more than a hypothetical: something bad that might happen at the end of an inferential trail in some unspecified location at some unidentified time in the future. Once the “climate change” veneer is peeled back from the story, the remaining substance, which I can certainly endorse, by the way, is simply that the Chinook salmon is an important species to the ecoregion and that we should try to be good stewards.
In subsequent posts I will examine other case studies in NOAA’s Toolkit, and trust that we will find more substance behind the NAGW claims.