Heidi Cullen is the Weather Channel’s Blame Changer

Doctors, nurses, and public health officials agree: industrial carbon pollution threatens the health of Americans. With record-breaking heat, floods, droughts, tornadoes, and earthquakes on the rise, the evidence of climate change from air pollution is all around us.According to a recent Yale survey, seven out of  10 Americans believe global warming is real and ­happening, and six in 10 believe it is affecting U.S.

Neither the experts nor the public are in complete agreement with this position. Some believe that climate change is happening but that human beings aren’t the primary culprits. Some don’t believe that climate change is happening. There is good reason to doubt that climate change is responsible for increased volcanic activity.  Earthquakes, especially in places not known to be in earthquake zones, have been attributed to “fracking,” the process through oil is extracted from oil shale, but that is still open to question.

The Really Big Question

So, are we experiencing climate change (the problem formerly known as global warming) because of natural causes or human activity, or both?  If the answer is both, how much is due to natural causes and how much of the climate change results from human activity?

If you want help unraveling these questions, refer to climatologist Heidi Cullen, who often seems to be one of few voices of reason in the climate change debate.

Dr. Cullen who is the chief scientist for the non-profit environmental organization, Climate Central, located in Princeton, New Jersey. is known as the blame changer. For someone who’s been immersed in the scary realities of global warming for so long, some people call Cullen surprisingly optimistic about climate change. Others believe that she represents the majority opinion.

In any discussion about climate change, however, it is well to remember Mark Twain’s famous quip: “Climate is what we expect. Weather is what we get.”

Climate is a statistical concept

Climate is a statistical concept, according to Cullen, so it can be hard for people to wrap their minds around it. When we talk about climate, we’re talking about the average of weather. We have an intuitive feel for climate “forecasts” in our own lives—we expect, in January, that July will be much warmer. And that’s accurate. Where things get tricky, of course, is over long time periods.

“I think of climate as being like an orchestra. It has so many elements, the way an orchestra has many sounds. The climate system is made up of components such as our atmosphere, the oceans, ice sheets, and the land surface. We experience natural climate variations, such as el Niño (the periodic warming of the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean), which has an inherent time scale of three to seven years. In fact, we just came out of à la Niña episode (the opposite phase of el Niño, in which there is a cooling of the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean), which is generally associated with drought along the southern portion of United States (including Texas, which saw its hottest, driest summer on record in 2011). Other natural climate variations include solar activity and volcanoes.”

Cullen believes that our climate is a result of “all of the above,” including the natural variations at play in our climate augmented by human activity. She calls the human agency the “steady drumbeat of warming in our climate system caused by us.” She believes that the “wait and see” approach advocated by climate change deniers may seem rational, but is actually incredibly risky. Her reasoning: by the time we really start seeing the full impact of global warming, it may too late to fix it.

How do we know we are causing the recent warming trend? Didn’t we just come out of an Ice Age?

Welcome to the Holocene Age

Cullen points out that, for the past 10,000 years, we have been in something called the Holocene age, a period of relatively stable climate compared with other time periods. The start of the Holocene also corresponds with the rise of complex human civilizations.  Things weren’t, however, as placid as the name suggests.

Holocene is from the Greek holo, meaning “whole,” and kanos, meaning “new.” Climatologists date the beginning of the Holocene period back to the end of the last ice age, which melted away some 11,650 year ago.  The Holocenic period is characterized by a distinct warming trend, which raised water levels around the world as the glaciers melted.

The Holocene hasn’t been all roses for humanity, however. A prolonged drought in Mesopotamia roughly 4,200 years ago resulted in the collapse of the Akkadian Empire.  More recently, a relatively minor cold snap from 1300 to 1850 caused widespread human suffering in the British Isles and Northern Europe. That mishap has been attributed to a decrease in the output of heat from the sun, but that theory has been debunked by more recent research.

A 2018 article in The Guardian suggests that a combination of increased volcanic activity, as well as increased burning of fossil fuels by the growing human population of the period, was largely to blame, although there may also have been a shift in the jet stream in the atmosphere and/or the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic ocean that helped force temperatures down in the British Isles and northern Europe. No one knew about either the jet stream or the gulf stream back then, so no comparative measurements exist for those variables.

Benjamin Franklin didn’t map the Gulf Stream until 1776, and his findings weren’t released publicly until 1786, when the knowledge of the location of the Gulf Stream was no longer of any military importance.  We didn’t know about the existence of the north Atlantic jet stream until Japanese meteorologist Wasaburo Ooishi published his findings in 1926.

When asked how scientists have differentiated between “natural” factors that affect the climate and warming from human activity, Cullen explains that we can measure chemical isotopes of CO2 in the atmosphere. We know where CO2 comes from—because these molecules have chemical fingerprints. CO2 from different sources has different mixes of carbon isotopes. Scientists use instruments called spectrometers that chemically separate the kinds of carbon found in fossil fuels from the kind normally found in air and water.

“We know which CO2 molecules were put into the atmosphere there by us. For instance, there is no C-14 in CO2 molecules that come from fossil fuels. Roughly, one out of every four molecules of CO2 in our atmosphere comes from human activity. It adds up. The increase in CO2 since the start of the Industrial Revolution has mostly been from burning fossil fuels—the remainder comes mainly from clearing and burning forests. Today global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are at 395 parts per million (ppm). Prior to the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the carbon dioxide level was about 280 ppm.”

“We have seen approximately 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit of warming in the past century. We are seeing CO2 going up—it is a measurable trend, not a cyclical phenomenon. On her own, Mother Nature’s earth cannot reproduce the observed global temperature record we have measured over the past century. Solar activity, volcanoes, and variability of other types are important, but on their own they simply cannot produce the significant warming trend we are now experiencing. Our climate models prove this.”

And that’s the problem, right there: climate change deniers hate climate models. They don’t think that climate models prove anything.

The evidence of the evidence

Cullen believes the research points to more frequent, longer-lasting and more heat waves, like Russian heat wave of 2010,  the 2011-2012 heat wave in North America,  the one 2015 Indian heat wave,  and the 2017-2018 heat wave that affected most of the Northern hemisphere. Other meteorologists blame rising temperatures for increasing tornado and hurricane activity, heat waves, heavy rainfalls, and droughts….

Wait a minute.  Can climate change be responsible for both droughts and flooding? Well, yes, actually. Higher ambient air temperatures allow the atmosphere to hold more water, causing drought conditions in certain areas and intense flooding in other areas.

The “wait and see” approach—let’s see how bad it gets—may seem rational, but in fact it is incredibly risky. There’s a time lag between what we do and what we see in our climate and weather. By the time we’re really seeing the full impact of global warming, it is too late to fix it.

It is so much cheaper, and safer, to take steps in advance of catastrophe. Fix the problem upfront. Two thousand and eleven set the record for the most billion-dollar weather disasters—14 of them, in one year. We can’t afford these problems.

People think climate change is something that scientists have only been focused on for a few decades. This isn’t the case. Global warming is not a new problem. In 1896 a Swedish scientist named Svante Arrhenius published a new idea. As humanity burned fossil fuels such as coal, carbon dioxide was added to the earth’s atmosphere. As a result, we were literally raising the planet’s average temperature. Arrhenius proposed this “greenhouse effect” as an explanation for climate change, and scientists have been working on the problem ever since. Arrhenius was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1903. Climate change isn’t a new idea at all.

For a more interview with Dr. Cullen’s, visit Momscleanairtaskforce.com