Don’t be distracted by the shine.

We seem to live in a world of extremes these days. If you don’t absolutely love or absolutely hate something, the suggestion is that you just haven’t made up your mind. While there is a “like” button on Facebook, just being lukewarm to an idea is portrayed the same way as being totally against it in many news outlets and blogs. So, instead of focusing on the merits of both sides of the coin, we’re told we must pick heads or tails and there can be no in-between.

I want to remind the world it takes two sides to make a complete coin. So, let’s focus for a minute on something more substantive than the shiny sides by considering what the coin represents – a topic with important implications for everyone.

What do anthropogenic climate change “skeptics” and “believers” have in common? While most media outlets would have you think the answer is “nothing,” it’s far from true.

No matter which side of the debate you lean toward – human-caused warming versus natural variation – the ultimate goal of both sides should be mitigation of present and future risk. I’ve written about this topic before, but with recent articles about the U.S. government’s Climate Science Special Report, the likelihood of more hurricane Harvey-type storms, and how important changes in non-extreme rainy and dry spells are to the climate, I feel safe revisiting this subject.


Image credit: NASA. A satellite image shows Hurricane Harvey as a Category 4 storm on August 25, 2017.

Case in point: when the Climate Science Special Report was released, it was taken by many at face value and reported with a tone of urgency and alarm by most news channels. However, other scientists such as Steve Koonin, who wrote a post about it for the Wall Street Journal, and Judith Curry, a climate scientist often called a “lukewarmer” because she questions how much faith we should put in climate models she knows intimately, looked at it with a more discerning eye. They questioned the timeline used in the report with regard to sea level rise. The report looked at the late 20th century through the early 21st, but apparently ignored higher sea levels that existed in the first part of the 20th century. That framing of the study has caused concern and become yet another topic of debate.

What both sides agree on, though, is that with rising sea level of any amount, coastal areas need to look closely at land-use policy and engineering to best protect their populations and natural resources.

Houston is a prime example, especially since an article on The Atlantic’s website published this week claims that with a warming climate, storms like Harvey will be much more likely to happen than they once did. While Harvey had a devastating effect on Houston, I can’t help but question some of the logic in that article, which was based on a rushed-to-print study by a well-respected scientist. I recall the dire warnings during the historic hurricane season of 2005 – how that season would set the tone for every year thereafter because it heralded the worst-case scenario for a warming climate. It took 12 years for us to see another season of landfalling, monster storms, and even this year wasn’t as bad as 2005. Not that I’m complaining.

Houston’s situation is more complicated than many coastal cities because Houston is sinking. Poor judgement in land-use for a quickly growing population over decades in the form of groundwater withdrawal has caused subsidence, especially in northwestern Harris County. Houston’s exposure to flood risk has been exacerbated by its sinking. A report published in 2010 cites a difference in ground elevation for that area of 2.5 meters between the 1930s and the 1970s. That change is huge! This fact isn’t news to Houston residents, but it probably is to most people outside of that region.

By the way, the report on Harvey’s effect on Houston was rushed so that it could be used by planners and engineers in the rebuilding process for the purpose of mitigating risk. Can you blame them?

I have always been one to weigh both sides of an argument. I learned the importance of being able to argue any point in debate class in tenth grade. If you don’t understand all aspects, you are making decisions based on incomplete information. So, please, don’t just choose heads or tails because one is shinier than the other. Consider the whole coin and understand that there’s value to it as a whole.