Climate Change and the Boiling Frog

The frog in the boiling pot of water experiment is an analogy often used to describe attitudes slow to change that in the end is potentially harmful. As the explanation goes, if a frog is placed over a pot of boiling water it will quickly jump out of harm’s way. However, if the frog is placed in a pot of water at room temperature and then the temperature is slowly turned up over time, the frog will only seek to adjust its own body temperature to match that of the environment, and when the temperature becomes deadly it would be too late for the frog to escape. I first heard this analogy while watching Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” documentary. At the time I thought it was just a way for him to drive home a point and surely he could not mean it figuratively as he compared society to the frog. However, recent changes in global temperatures have forced me to question if it was an analogy or prediction.

Rex Tilerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil Corporation, the largest publicly traded oil company in the world, reacted to a question on climate change posed by David Fentom, who started off by saying:

“Mr Tilerson, I want to talk to you about science and risk and I agree with you that is the way we must proceed. So as you know it’s a basic fact of physics that carbon dioxide traps heat, and too much CO2 will mean it will get too hot, and we will face enormous risks as a result of this. Not only to our way of life, but to the world economy, and it will be devastating. The seas will rise, the coastlines will be unstable for generations, and the price of food will go crazy. This is what we face and we all know it. So my question for you since we all know this knowledge even though we are a little in denial of it, you know if we burn all this reserve that you talk about you can kiss future generations goodbye. Maybe we will find a solution to take carbon out of the air, but as you know we don’t have one. So what are you going to do about this? We need your help to do something about this.”

Tilerson shared with the audience at the Council for Foreign Relations that Exxon had been a participant in the IPCC studies, that they had authored many of the sub committee papers and peer reviewed many of the documents. He expressed that they had been working with MIT on the subject of climate change for over 20 years.

Tilerson went on to say he was not convinced that the modeling done to describe future outcomes were competent enough to accurately predict what could happen. He pointed out gaps in the modeling system, from its inability to include clouds and aerosols and went on to state that they are big pieces when dealing with making accurate predictions. He then stated “Clearly there is going to be an impact, increasing CO2 is going to have an impact. It will have a warming impact.”

Tilerson framed it as a risk mitigation issue and went on to say “It’s an engineering problem; it’s not a problem that we can’t solve.”  Tilerson believes Global Warming is a great challenge, but engineering solutions around adaptations are or will be available and that the problem is solvable.

This exchange was posted on YouTube on June 27, 2012 at the beginning of the summer.  It was of particular interest to me because it reminded me of conversations that I had overheard almost 10 years, during which time the news was filled with stories of Europe’s heat wave. The story seemed almost unbelievable. 2003 was the hottest summer on record since 1540! The death toll was up to 70,000 people.

According to an article issued by the United Nations Environmental Program, 2004 was the most expensive year for insurance companies globally as a result of hurricanes, typhoons, and other weather related natural disasters.

“Figures released at the International Climate Change Conference taking place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, showed that the first 10 months of the year natural disasters cost the insurance industry just over $35 billion up from $16 billion in 2003. The United States, at over $26 billion, suffered the highest insured losses according to the preliminary figures compiled by Munich Re, one of the world’s biggest insurance companies. Economic losses, the majority of which were not insured would also have cost the planet and its people dear. Preliminary figures for the months January to October estimate these losses were also among the highest on record, totaling so far about $90 billion, up from over $65 billion in 2003.”

After reading a blog post in Climate Progress, a blog edited by Joe Romm, I stumbled upon some more interesting factoids. Romm’s blog was named one of the top 25 blogs in the world in 2010 by Time Magazine and author Tom Friedman called it “the indispensable blog.” In this post Romm highlighted something called the National Climate Data Center’s Climate Extremes Index. Romm explained that the index was “explicitly created to take a complicated subject and make it more easily understood by American citizens and policy makers. He went on to point out that the most extreme weather at the time of writing that post was by far 1998, however, 2006 was the second most extreme year followed by 2005.

In 2007 a Reuters article reported that according to the UN, 2007 saw record-breaking extreme weather.  “From flooding in Asia to heat waves in Europe and snowfall in South Africa. The World Meteorological Organization in the same article said, “Global land surface temperatures in January and April were likely the warmest since records began in 1880, at more than 1 degree Celsius higher than average for those months.” It went on to explain, “South Asia’s worst monsoon flooding in recent memory has affected 30 million people in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, destroying croplands, livestock and property.”

Fast forward to 2010; we witnessed one of the worst forest fire and drought outbreaks in one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat. According to Munich Re, the fires in Russia killed more than 55,000 people, destroyed 2,000 buildings and cost in excess of $15 billion U.S. The fire covered an area as large as 115,000 baseball fields.

In 2011, a YouTube video posted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Director of the National Weather Service Jack Hayes went on record to say that in his 40 years of observing weather he had never seen a year with more extreme weather.

“You know in my weather career spanning four decades, I’ve never seen a year quite like 2011, sure we’ve had years with extreme flooding, extreme hurricanes, extreme winter snowstorms and even extreme tornado outbreaks,” Hayes said. “But I can’t remember a year like this, in which we experienced record-breaking extremes of nearly every conceivable type of weather.”

In 2012 the U.S., the world’s largest exporter of food, experienced one of the worst droughts in its history. On July 9, 2012 a well-known climate change blogger named Peter St Clair posted a video that aggregated many of the mainstream American news reports on the weather and climate. The opening line explained that May 2011to April 2012 was the warmest 12-month period on record since the U.S. started collecting data in 1895, while 2013 started off with record heat temperatures in Australia and record wildfires that have destroyed thousands of acres of land and destroyed entire towns.

After collecting this information and observing the number of weather records broken, I wonder if this is just a cycle or are we the frogs in a planetary pot? And if we are the frogs in the pot, how long do we have until we reach the critical boiling point? Interestingly enough the ten hottest years on the planet have all occurred since 1998.

By Dwayne Matthews

Dwayne Matthews is the Executive Director of d&a Visual Insights, and a pioneer of open innovation in Canada.