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Originally published Wednesday, September 24, 2014 at 5:01 PM

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Editorial: Keep climate-change study in context

A new report on regional wind patterns and their role in climate change adds questions, but not wisdom.


Seattle Times Editorial

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CLIMATE change has extraordinary power to melt rational analysis.

Sober scientific research, couched in the lexicon of hypothesis and probability, becomes a puddle when it enters the oven of political rhetoric.

Extremism is evidenced on the left and the right. An unusually hot local summer becomes rock-solid evidence of climate change for bar-stool scientists on the left.

On Tuesday, it was the right’s turn.

A new study by two former University of Washington scientists found scant evidence that a global temperature rise was to blame for a 1-degree uptick in average coastal temperature since 1900 on the West Coast.

Instead, the study, as described by Seattle Times reporter Craig Welch, suggests that changes in wind and air patterns were responsible for 80 percent of the warming from Northern California to Washington.

Right-wing skeptics seized on it as irrefutable evidence of a global climate-change hoax, ignoring studies that reached the opposite conclusion, and skipping over the researchers’ careful hedging against such overreach.

“This doesn’t say that global warming is not happening,” study co-author Nathan Mantua told The Times. “It doesn’t say human-caused climate change isn’t happening globally.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations-affiliated task force of 3,500 experts from more than 120 nations, concluded in a recent report it was “extremely likely” — a probability of 95 to 100 percent — that humans are “the dominant cause” of a warming planet. Extreme weather, from heat waves to flooding, is coming.

That should be the baseline. But the beauty of science is that it yields new questions with every answer. If wind plays a larger role in local climate variations than previously thought, questions arise: What does that mean, for example, for the Cascade snowpack — the state’s wellspring and light socket — in 30 years? Or 100 years? What are the implications for ocean acidification, which threatens the vital local fisheries?

For state policy makers, more questions follow: What is Washington’s role in addressing this global problem? What policy solutions would reduce carbon emissions? How much? And at what economic cost?

The spasms of climate-change overreach recall science fiction writer Issac Asimov’s quote: “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom,” Asimov wrote in 1988.

That’s just as true today.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, Blanca Torres, Robert J. Vickers, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).



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