The Weather of the Future

Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet

Heidi Cullen takes readers forty years forward in her survey of what is likely to happen in several areas of the world if we continue to burn fossil fuels. Her book is The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet. It is a highly effective communication to the lay person of what climate science predicts for the specific areas she has chosen to explore. Cullen, a climatologist, works as a senior research scientist for Climate Central, an organisation set up in 2008 to act as a central authoritative source for climate change information.

Before moving to the selected areas for closer examination she offers some lucid general introductory chapters, including a very useful explanation of the use of modelling in climate prediction. In response to the question of when the weather will start to reflect predictions about the climate she answers that it already has in extreme weather events. If greenhouse gases continue to rise, the way weather affects life on Earth will be far worse than anything we’ve ever seen before. ”Can we rally around this forty-year forecast for the good of the world, or will we wait until the levees break before we decide to act?

The first area Cullen surveys is the Sahel region of Africa.  She talks with climatologists who work on understanding the rainfall patterns and outlook for the region.  The picture is complex, but there is no doubt that the region is going to get warmer. All the models agree on that. They show some variation on the expected amount of rainfall, but it seems likely that the rainy season will start later and become shorter, with storms that will possibly become more intense. Pockets of resilience offer some hope from farmers who have turned to tree planting with considerable benefits to their crops and welcome extra income from the trees. But as Cullen takes her projections forward she remarks that there is only so much the trees can do against the increasing reality of climate change. Socially, climate change will become a threat multiplier as conflict spreads across the African continent in lockstep with temperature.

The next selected area is the Great Barrier Reef. Cullen talks with Joanie Kleypas, a marine ecologist and geologist who uses climate models to study the health of coral reefs. “I work on coral reefs, for God’s sake. The entire coral science community is depressed.” The chapter provides very clear accounts of the bleaching effect of warming oceans (“Bleached corals aren’t dead; they’re just starving.”) and the deleterious effect on coral growth from ocean acidification. The speed of both warming and acidification is likely to quickly outpace the conditions under which coral reefs have adapted and flourished through past changes. They are unlikely to be able to adapt fast enough. It’s not a good outlook. Cullen allows herself a detour to point to other and more dramatic effects of climate change that Australia is set to encounter – ferocious wildfires, pervasive drought, and unbreathable air. The lucky country looks anything but in coming decades.

The US is a leading per capita contributor to global emissions. It has not yet accepted the level of responsibility it carries. Other places, far less responsible and much poorer, are bearing the early consequences of global warming. But that doesn’t mean the US will remain exempt from any serious consequences, and it was good to see Cullen turning to her own country for two of her chapters, and driving home that message.  One of the places she selects is Central Valley, California.  The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is a focus of her attention here. It’s the hub of California’s water supply system. The Hollywood-style dream is that the Delta will be able to supply enough clean fresh water to help cities and crops increase “forever”, all without harm to the natural environment, she notes dryly. She speaks with a multidisciplinary team studying the Delta, which in reality has far more in common with New Orleans than with Hollywood. The details of the problems and threats are canvassed and the extreme vulnerability of California to coming water shortage exposed. Her other US focus is New York city. Here it will be energy blackouts which threaten as the average temperature increases over coming decades. The power grid is unsuited to climate extremes. The other major area not ready for what lies ahead is flood protection.  However planning is going on in New York to develop resilience to what the changed climate will deliver, and also to mitigate the city’s emissions.  Cullen imagines a time four years from now in which, following damage from a storm, a co-ordinated plan is finally adopted by an alarmed population and New York becomes a city obsessed with adapting to climate change. It clearly needs to.

Her other chapters look at more obviously and immediately vulnerable places. In the Arctic she examines the current experience of the Inuit in an area of Canada and in Greenland. Change is well under way as sea ice diminishes and permafrost melts. It brings with it not only the physical challenges to the Inuit ways but also severe cultural threats. In Greenland as the ice melts there’s the promise of wealth from resource extraction, and the ambiguities that come with it. Bangladesh is skilled in adaptation to change and experienced in flood management, but by 2050 with almost 25 per cent of the country under water as a result of rising seas and increasing tropical cyclones, accompanied by the slow and deadly seepage of saline water into wells and fields, Bangladesh will be in serious trouble. Millions of villagers will have to move to the city, and many are likely to cross illegally into India hoping to find work.

The value of Cullen’s book is that by focusing on specific places, and by talking with scientists who are devoting full attention to the problems climate change poses for those places, she brings the reader close up to inescapable realities. The details are spelt out. Moreover she does this by a lively narrative of her discussions with the scientists closely involved. Her book is not a dry account of scientific papers but a picture of the people working to understand, predict and prepare for what is in waiting for the populations in the areas she discusses. It’s a reminder too of the number and variety of people who now work on climate change-related issues.

The book recognises the adaptation capabilities being shown by some of the populations already affected by climate changes. It is with some reluctance that it acknowledges the possibility of defeat if high emission levels continue. They don’t need to continue, of course, but that is in the hands of policy makers. Cullen in conclusion examines two words in use in the science. One is unequivocal, used to describe the warming of the climate system. The other is irreversible, used to describe uncertain but all too possible eventualities. She uses the cutting down of the last tree on Easter Island, as imagined so vividly by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse, as an analogy for irreversibility. Unfortunately as yet the two words are not powerful enough in policy circles to shift the forecast for the future.

[More at: Fishpond (NZ),, Book Depository (UK, free shipping worldwide).]

43 thoughts on “The Weather of the Future”

  1. “Cullen allows herself a detour to point to other and more dramatic effects of climate change that Australia is set to encounter – ferocious wildfires, pervasive drought, and unbreathable air. The lucky country looks anything but in coming decades…”

    Being an Aussie, this is exactly what I fear. That this future may not be that fare aware concerns me greatly.

  2. Where in the book review article or the first comment posted (assuming “fare aware” = “far away”) is it even implied that anyone wants a disaster?

    Charles, the only one with a poisoned mind is you.

  3. Richard T

    “Neven”, a collaborator of Gareth here on this site, admits to wanting disaster. He is the honest one.

    Others, like Gareth who talks about record ice melts being “beyond reach”, appear to desperately want it but deny it.

    The tone of many commenters here leaves little doubt that they are aching for disaster.

    Don’t blame me, mate.

  4. Oh, Richard T, and by the way …..

    Look back at the post “Long way around the sea”. You will note that Neven, when he or she admitted to wanting disaster, attracted only support from other commenters. My own comments, merely pointing out that Neven was a self-acknowledged wanter of catastrophic warming, attracted massive opposition, and were finally deleted by Gareth.

    Richard, you are so open-minded I am sure you will have no compunction in looking back, and then apologising to me. Clearly, the poison is in the disaster-mongers, and their sympathisers, not with the one who exposes and criticises them.

    He who sups with disaster-mongers should use a long spoon. Mate.

    1. No apology. Your comment was directed at 3 potential people – The author of the book (Cullen), the reviwer (Walker) and the original comment-maker “watching the deniers”. There was nothing stated in the thread to that point from which anyone could infer an attempt to poison minds.

    2. Your comments are contemptible. You may even be the worst of the trolls who have visited this site. How dare you accuse people who want to solve problems of having ulterior motives.

  5. I don’t think that anyone wants the disasters associated with AGW. What would be useful is some clear sign that even the most blinkered denier couldn’t miss, so that they stop sabotaging mitigation attempts. Arctic sea ice melt should be an unambiguous sign, which doesn’t cause harm to anyone. However, I predict that the lack of a record Arctic sea ice melt this year will be used by the denierblogosphere as a sign that AGW is not happening and be a pretext for delay.

    1. Actually 2010 shows a record of sea ice loss. Its the volume (extend x thickness) which really counts. The small gains in sea ice extend over the record extent low recently are all thin annual ice that is easily broken up in storms. However if the volume loss is considered which takes into account the thinning of the remainder of the existing ice cap then 2010 saw a record collapse in sea ice volume. See here:

  6. “Neven”, a collaborator of Gareth here on this site, admits to wanting disaster. He is the honest one.

    I want anything that cripples pseudo-skeptic/denialist delaying efforts. The sooner, the better.

    I’d rather not see any real disasters, but if that is what is needed to wake people up to the fact that we need to transition to a sustainable society fast, then so be it.

    From my POV this is entirely logical. The longer the pseudo-skeptics/denialists are successful in postponing this transition, the bigger the disasters will be, the more people will suffer and die. If Charles would be as honest as I am, he would acknowledge that this is the risk of the tactic he is supporting.

    In other words: a successful denialist strategy will be a disaster of epic proportions. And this is what Charles is hoping for. How’s that for irony?

  7. The real disaster is in the fact there are so many who find AGW outside their `comfort zone` therefore strenuously denie the clear evidence and criticize those with the fortitude to face the facts.
    No one wants to be on a bus ride to hell but if some one does not apply the brake the result will be undeniable.
    For my part I`m not interested in debating with people who have obviously made up their minds to ignore clear and undeniable evidence of AGW.
    The time will come when even they will say they were wrong and some may go to the grave in denial. May their God bless their cotton socks.

  8. Hot from the press: Deutsche Bank has released a detailed and well researched and extensively referenced report addressing the claims of the climate change sceptics. Correctly interpreting climate science and its implications for the path of humanity will be hugely important for investors all over the world. Hence the bank’s effort to set the record straight and to inform their clients with the best advice they can provide.
    Here is the paper link below and I think it is a rather definitive nail in the coffin for the climate skeptics.
    I’d recommend to Gareth to put it up and comment on it in its own topic here perhaps.

      1. Cheers, yes did not see it. I found it rather comprehensive.

        Just found this gem:
        The story reports about a new study from China that there was rapid cooling (2Deg) in the Medieval period there resulting in famine.
        Apparently some skeptics use make the point that this shows that warm is better. I make the point that this story would entirely contradict the hobby horse of the skeptics, the global Medieval warm period. The hockey stick was probably pretty good after all….

  9. “Unbreathable air” Anyone who was in Adelaide during our foretaste of hell a couple of years ago knows about this. Ever tried to breathe when it’s over 40 and the relative humidity is below 15%? We have to do it occasionally but this was unbelievable.

    Adelaide? Bah! They’re used to heat waves. No. Not like that one.

    I can at least give thanks that I’m not Pakistani. They’ve had both hell and high water this year.

    At least the Arctic ice melt has startled only a few people – the blokes on the boat marvelling at 7 degree water, for instance.

    How many more???

  10. Neven, you are paranoid. I hadn’t even logged on, so I was not the one to thumbs-down you.

    I have now, because you are admitting to wanting disaster to befall our children. You are a disaster-monger.

  11. And here’s another – Turboblocke “What would be useful is some clear sign that even the most blinkered denier couldn’t miss…”

    disaster-monger, apparentlyt with support from the majority of voters on this disaster-mongering site

    1. The only disaster-monger here is you, Charles. By supporting doing nothing to halt warming, you inevitably make the future worse.

      Please note: if you continue to sling this accusation around, you will join Dewhurst on permanent moderation, and I will only pass comments for publication if they add to the discussion.

  12. RW, you throw around insults like you think have some sort of monopoly.

    Tell me, have you ever attacked, called contemptible, voted thumbs down, the numerous people here who attach alterior motives to “denialists”?

  13. you are admitting to wanting disaster to befall our children.

    Looks to me like your kids are already experiencing one. 😀

    It was fun knowing you. Too bad you have zero communicative skills.

  14. Getting personal won’t help you out of this fix, Neven. You have acknowledged that you want AGW, specifically you said you want the polar ice to melt.

    Wriggle and squirm as you and your pals may, the fact is you are all saying that melting ice is a sign of AGW, which in turn you say is a harbinger of disaster.

    The corrollary of wanting ice to melt is therefore wanting disaster. This applies to all those who support you by vote, and those who criticise me also by voting down.

    But then again, I’m told that logic is not a strong point of this site.

    I’m also told that there are a lot of people who frequent this site who have jobs that RELY on AGW. And others who simply make money out of it by writing books etc.

  15. John D

    Are different standards expected of non-believers?

    Gareth and his mob appear to have no problem with personal abuse, as long as it is hurled at people they dont agree with.

  16. Is it personal abuse, would you say, to point out that Charles’ ‘reasoning’ displayed above is inane?

    As is his persistent refusal to acknowledge the obvious point that the only reason anyone has ever cited for ‘wanting’ any ‘disaster’ is as a non-destructive but dramatic foretaste providing incontrovertible evidence that might awaken even the wilfully obtuse to the danger of AGW, or at least – and this is more likely – cause the majority to finally stop paying them any heed!

    Despite a seemingly endless log of claims to victimhood – let’s salute these brave martyrs who selflessly suffer persecution at the hands of bloodthirsty ‘doomsayers’ who relish ‘disasters,’ these courageous souls who must valiantly toss the same (surely magical?) phrases about over and over and over – the above isn’t abuse, of course, but I reckon he’ll most likely attempt to claim it is. (After all, an ad hominem attack is any challenge directed at a named denier, isn’t it? 😉 )

    Other than that, it’s Gareth’s place, and his rules; suck it up and stick to them! Would you behave so boorishly if you were a guest in his house? I’d hope not…

    1. Yes that is amazing. Looking at this image from the report:

      it is clear that if was not for the cooler eastern pacific waters we would have seen an overall temperature anomaly of striking proportions. Many parts of central Europe and also the eastern US and the arctic had anomalies of 4 to 5 Deg C! from the average. This is significant and had as we know a huge impact on the lives of people there and the state of the arctic.

      The relatively cooler waters of the east pacific are probably a result of stronger upwelling of colder deep water there. One must remember that the deep ocean contains a very large reservoir of cold water which puts a dampening effect on the speed of climate change. As the globe warms amplifications in ocean currents seem a natural consequences as these are driven by temperature and salinity gradients.

  17. No, RW. I’ve been looking forward to a bit more rain and a nice warm summer with the regulation half a dozen separate days with temps of 38 or 39.

    If La Nina’s going to let me down, I don’t want to know until it happens.

  18. Oh yes. Heidi – deregister any climatologist who disagrees with alarmism-Cullen. Has she considered participating in the forthcoming American Geophysical Union session, whose converor has been caught pants-down touting for scaremongers:
    I wanted to bring to your attention an AGU session that Steve Sherwood and I are co-convening. I wanted to encourage you to submit results to this session if have something relevant. we’re looking simulations or theory or data that push the envelope what we think of as Earth’s climate.

    -matthew huber”

    1. Ah you are mentioning the Green Hell book by Steve Milloy, of whom we know (source watch): Steven J. Milloy is a columnist for Fox News and a paid advocate for Phillip Morris, ExxonMobil and other corporations. From the 1990s until the end of 2005, he was an adjunct scholar at the libertarian think tank the Cato Institute.
      To which we should ad that the Cato Institute was founded by none other than one of the infamous Koch Billionaires with the intend to influence politics through discrediting science where science indicated a need for industry regulation of dangerous substances such as Tobacco etc.
      The institute has been a major source of junk science denying climate change especially through its “senior fellow” Patrick Michaels together with his co-author Ross McKitrick from the Canadian Frazer institute (an organization with similar affiliations in tobacco etc as the Cato Institute and similar sources of funding).

    2. You need fact-checking, Steve. Heidi Cullen said nothing about climatologists — her reference was to US TV weather presenters, who can get on air with little or no qualifications, yet still feel qualified to pronounce on climate change.

      And you might have noted that “Green Hell” comes from none other than Steve Milloy, who has spent so long supping at the campaign for inaction on climate change that Mark Morano calls him “the godfather” of climate denial.

  19. A comment on how the US public media edits out the news:

    This is a stunning picture of media censorship of “inconvenient truth” in the USA.

    BTW recently the TIME columnist Joel Stein ranted against Net Neutrality and argued that channels such as Fox News should be allowed to rule the internet through payments made in favor of preferential packet transfer so that (inference of mine) all these “pesky little green blogger’s websites like this one can get stuffed…
    Quote: “Fox News should load 20 times faster than Daily Kos, because far more people read it.”,9171,2013832,00.html

    Presumably Fox News sponsored bloggers would then be able to be preferentially served as well so that the people could be duped even more. This is a growing black spot to be watched carefully.

  20. What has the fact that my quote appeared on a site you don’t like got to do you with anything?
    “we’re looking simulations or theory or data that push the envelope what we think of as Earth’s climate.” is clear instructions. Only “researchers” prepared to scare children and shake down consumers welcome. Otherwise get lost.

  21. Thomas
    Thank you for the added info on the oily Koch brothers. I’ve been doing my darndest to alert the public (via comment sections at main stream media articles) to the role the Koch family has playedin coaching the Tea Pary nutters, their role in climate change denial PR, tobacco danger denial, and recently formaldahyde cancer link denial. (They also own Georgia Pacific lumber company).
    I hadn’t realized they started the Cato Institute as well.

    Whats ironic about the tea baggers, with their support for all things corporate, is that the original Boston Tea Party was actually an anti corporate- anti monopoly protest against the preferential treatment extended to the East India Tea Company by the British Crown. This is confirmed by diaries of people who actually took part in the event. American liberal radio talk show host and author, Tom Hartman has an article on this at his website. Yes there actually are a few liberal talk show hosts in America. Of course the nutters still complain about the “liberal media”.

    1. Hi Sailrick!

      Yes, I think we are going into very dangerous times indeed. The nutters led astray by scrupulous deep pockets and the media outlets they own are on the rise again. Dogmatic beliefs are in an the rigor of science is in the cross hairs of the nutters and their masters.

      It is my theory that people simply find the “certainty” that dogmatic belief gives them much more appealing than the “uncertainty” of accepting the path of scientific discovery.

      Science postulates a truth that exists independent of and outside of the control, personal belief and free decision of the mind. Most people prefer the right to believe whatever they decide the truth to be for themselves – and thereby to rid themselves from the external determination of what they should accept or deny based on logic, observation and evidence (the scientific way). Whats right and whats wrong can then simply be decided by the alpha-male of the group around the beer table, preached from the steeple or be dictated by the patriarch to his family. Good old times!

      During the past century when the work of scientists foremost gave more and more powerful toys to the boys, all was well. Now however, where science in perhaps unprecedented ways becomes a warning voice for the crash of our exponential growth paradigm with our one-planet reality and where real decisions are in need to be made that are better based on sound scientific evidence, a chasm has opened between science and the population. Deep pocket special interests who are also on a collision course with external determination through a reality outside their control (Koch empire in the USA for example) are exploiting and feeding this chasm.

      So as we are entering into a critical century for the survival of our civilization and are in need of sound evidence based advice as how to steer the ship, we will need a sound and well founded education in the NoS and scientific literacy more than ever to defeat the otherwise looming descent into a replication of the dark ages where we loose our grip on truth and objectivity as the base of our democracy follows demagogues and the pipes of special interests into the woods….

      Susan Haack, Professor of Philosophy, commented already in 1997:

      “We are in danger of losing our grip on the concepts of truth, evidence, objectivity and disinterested inquiry. The preposterous environment in which academic work is presently conducted is inhospitable to genuine inquiry, hospitable to the sham and the fake. Encouraging both envy and resentment of the sciences, it has fed an increasingly widespread and articulate irrationalism.”

      I rest my case and conclude that science education is a highly relevant and important topic that should be taken far more seriously also in our public life.

  22. Thomas,

    Thanks for a couple of those links. I’d almost overlooked the radian cocktail mixers.. so long ago, so much happens..

    Yet as it turns out, most helpful in resourcing the biz/social network — their politicians refer to themselves no longer as neocon but social conservatives would you believe(hey they sure as heck want you to) — sort of Wegman-style. Reversed.

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