Climate Metaphor #1: Baseball and Floods

A severe rainstorm causes a major flood for a town and a local reporter asks a scientist if the flooding is due to climate change. He hesitates in giving a “yes” or “no” response and this is perceived as an indication that the science is not clear. However, the scientist instead provides an analogy:

A baseball player wants to improve his hitting and so he devotes the off-season to an intensive strength and conditioning training program. In the playoffs, the following season, he hits the game winning home run and a reporter asks whether he hit the home run because of the training program.

The answer is: we can’t say for certain if the conditioning caused this particular home run. After all, the player had home runs in previous seasons before he did the training.

The point is that this is the wrong question.

To understand the impact of the training on his performance you would need to compare the number of home runs, batting average, or slugging percentage during that whole season as compared with previous ones. Other factors might be considered, such as the expected progress for a player of his age from one year to the next.

Going back to the question of climate change and the flood: asking whether climate change caused that particular flood is simply the wrong question to ask. Clearly, there have been floods prior to the warming planet. But if we look at collective data and ask whether there have been more frequent and severe floods in recent years as compared with previous decades, and if these changes can be attributed to climate change, the answer is an unequivocal “Yes!”