Conservative climate-change skeptics are attacking environmentalists for linking the earthquake that hit Japan Friday to global warming. Neither side looks good.
Friday, the day an 8.9 earthquake struck off the north east coast of Honshu, the president of the European Union’s Economic and Social Committee released this puzzling statement:
The earthquake and tsunami will clearly have a severe impact on the economic and social activities of the region. Some islands affected by climate change have been hit. Has not the time come to demonstrate on solidarity — not least solidarity in combating and adapting to climate change and global warming? Mother Nature has again given us a sign that that is what we need to do.
Huh? Japan sits astride a subduction zone — where one tectonic plate plunges below another into the Earth’s mantle. Consequently, you get big earthquakes there.
But — wait — Christopher Mims at Grist tries to provide a scientific basis for identifying a thin link between the earthquake and climate change, in a post that appears to have been originally titled, “Today’s tsunami: This is what climate change looks like.”
So far, today’s tsunami has mainly affected Japan — there are reports of up to 300 dead in the coastal city of Sendai — but future tsunamis could strike the U.S. and virtually any other coastal area of the world with equal or greater force, say scientists. In a little-heeded warning issued at a 2009 conference on the subject, experts outlined a range of mechanisms by which climate change could already be causing more earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic activity, albeit of a scale and nature quite different from Friday’s tragedy.
You can’t entirely dismiss this point — it’s possible climate change could produce more earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic activity as ice mass on the continental crust shifts. But even the scientists speculating about this admit that these are low-probability outcomes, compared with others that we can predict with more confidence — more high-impact weather events, floods and droughts, for example. So it’s jarring to see warnings about global warming as the disaster in Japan is still developing on its own terms. Ultimately, issuing these warnings so quickly after the earthquake makes environmentalists appear knee-jerk and alarmist.
This enables conservatives to do just what they’ve done since these commentaries emerged this week — use examples of environmentalists’ over-exuberance for the climate cause to undermine the whole argument in favor of action to curb global warming. So this week — one in which that new NASA study showing ice caps disappearing much faster than we had thought should have gotten more attention — Ace of Spades was able to unload this load of unhelpful, dismissive snark on enviros: “This is not the first time earthquakes have been blamed by the Shamanistic, Magical-Thinking Left on the all-purpose Zeus-substitute of global warming.”