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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

When storms are not statistics

Photo: Flicker/by DVIDSHUB
My United States Senator, democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, made a bit of a national stir this week with a tirade against Republicans and climate change skeptics. In doing so he invoked the good, wounded, and dead people of Oklahoma.

Push back was immediate—and deservedly so. The senator’s spokesperson Seth Larson issued a statement that blamed the remarks on bad timing.

But the senator’s comments were more than an error in timing or bad judgment. They were an example of what we in the environmental advocacy world must never succumb to: Pointing to individual disasters for proof that we’re right and they’re wrong. This is childish, ineffective, and (I must add) not at all Christian. 

While we must defend the weak—and in this case, the weak are all those who can suffer from a changing climate (which is really most of us)—it is wrong to point to this blizzard or that tornado outbreak and link it to climate change.

Again and again this must be repeated: Weather is not climate. No single storm is evidence of a changing climate. Trends are.

To make my point, below is a National Weather Service slide from a presentation published by the University of Rhode Island Sea Grant program. It shows an upward trend in Rhode Island of rainfall amounts of more than one inch in a twenty-four hour period. This trend is indicative of a warming atmosphere, which, as warmer air holds more moisture, releases more rain when storms come and go. No one data point in this graph is significant when speaking about warming atmospheres. Many factors affect which storms are wetter or windier than others. It is the trend—that green line—that tells the story.

But what comes too naturally for many—like Senator Whitehouse—is referring to specific data points to prove rather complex realities. And this is not helpful.

Moreover, those data points are not mere nuances for the sake of argument. They are often quite harsh realities that deeply affect—and many times end—the lives of men, women, and children.

As we saw in Moore, Oklahoma, data about storms is nothing to brandish when engaging in climate change warfare.

And this is where we Catholics—and all those of faith—can help broker the dialogue. We can balance human reason’s use of statistics with the human soul’s love of neighbor. We can help those harmed by any event while working to understand if and how human activity may be creating more powerful storms—and if so, how we can remedy the situation.

But we can never point to lives torn to pieces and say with excitement that these people’s misfortune proved me right. (Nor can we be partof the growing entertainment cottage of industry that chases and films cyclonic destruction not for purposes of science but for the fun of it.)

May God bless with abundant grace the people throughout the Midwest—throughout the United States and the whole world—who are suffering loss of life, property, and loved ones from the ravages of weather. May the rest of us do what we can—like donating here—to help as we can. And let us pray ...

Jesus Christ a King of Glory has come in Peace. † God became man, † and the Word was made flesh. † Christ was born of a Virgin. † Christ suffered. † Christ was crucified. † Christ died. † Christ rose from the dead. † Christ ascended into Heaven. † Christ conquers. † Christ reigns. † Christ orders. † May Christ protect us from all storms and lightning † Christ went through their midst in Peace, † and the word was made flesh. † Christ is with us with Mary. † Flee you enemy spirits because the Lion of the Generation of Judah, the Root David, has won. † Holy God! † Holy Powerful God! † Holy Immortal God! † Have mercy on us. Amen!

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