Future-Present Imperfect Imperative

by | Aug 4, 2009

The English language is just not equipped with the verb tenses required to report environmental news stories easily. Where’s the tense that would allow environment reporters to write stories about predictions about the future as if they are occurring in the present, for example? As it is, such ‘scientists predict that climate change is happening now’ stories have to be carefully constructed so that the switches between future and present tenses don’t spoil the flow of the piece and get in the way of the all important message about the ravages of climate change. We’ve written about them before. Another popped up on the BBC at the weekend.

First, it identifies the ravage:

It is almost halfway through the rainy season, and the monsoon in many parts of South Asia continues to remain unreliable.

In some places it has been crippling weak, while in others it has been devastatingly intense.

There are places reeling from drought, yet at the same time there are areas that have been hit by torrential rains, triggering floods and landslides in a very short span of time.

This has made the lives of millions of people difficult and has left them increasingly worried for the future.

Very little of the arable land is irrigated, and local populations depend on monsoon rainfall for agriculture.

The monsoon clouds have weakened in several parts of the region and the variable and erratic rains have left weather forecasters scratching their heads

Then it pops the big question:

This failure of the monsoons to behave as expected has led to the question of whether climate change is to blame.

Experts differ on whether these changes are directly linked to climate.

Then it gets stuck into the debate. Some experts say climate change is not the culprit (or that there is not even anything out of the ordinary going on that needs explaining):

“This year’s monsoon behaviour cannot yet be attributed to climate change as it is still within the observed natural variability of the monsoon,” said Krishna Kumar Kanikicharla, a scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology.

“Our assessment of climate model simulations for the current and the next century indicate no significant deviation until the middle of the 21st Century. Thereafter, the monsoon rainfall will continue to increase by 8-10% from current levels.”

Aregional research centre in Bangladesh found what it called “cyclic changes”, but has identified no effects so far that can be attributed to climate change.


Some researchers suggest that this is a natural “shift” in the pattern of rainfall.

“We studied three 30-year window periods from 1951 to 2000 and found that there was a slow shift in the rainfall scenarios,” said Sujit Kumar Deb Sarma, a researcher with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Meteorological Research Centre in Bangladesh.

“Places that got more rain are receiving lower rainfall and vice versa.

“But we also found that after some time the rainfall patterns go back to what they were before and slowly start changing again. It’s a cyclic change that has been happening [for] years.”

While others are not so sure:

But authorities in Pakistan believe the falling monsoon rainfall may have been the result of climate change.

“There may have been some impacts of climate change,” said Mr Chaudhry of the Pakistan Met Office.

“We know that the El Nino events have been affecting our rainfall all these years, but climate change could be aggravating the situation even more.”

Meteorologists in Nepal too think global warming may have some role in the changing monsoon pattern the country has been experiencing.

“There are so many factors including the El Nino effect that have been affecting the monsoon but we cannot say that these changes are not because of global warming,” said Mani Ratna Shakya, head of the weather forecasting division.

International studies have also pointed at the relationship between the monsoon and climate change.

Not looking good for the climate change hypothesis, then. Against: studies that find no influence of AGW but do identify various other factors. For: Well, you can’t rule it out entirely. The BBC doesn’t give up that easily though. Time to get jiggy with those tenses:

A study by researchers at Purdue University, US, found that the South Asian monsoon could be weakened and delayed as a result of rising temperatures in the future.

“Climate change could influence monsoon dynamics and cause lower summer precipitation, a delay to the start of the monsoon season and longer breaks between the rainy periods.”

Another report recently prepared for the Australian government has shown that potentially greater threats could be abrupt changes to the oceans and atmosphere that lead to irreversible switches in weather or ocean patterns – so-called tipping points.

“An example is the Indian monsoon. According to some models that could switch into a drier mode in a matter of years,” the report’s author Will Steffen, executive director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University, told Reuters.

The fourth assessment report of the IPCC had this to say about the monsoon: “It is likely that warming associated with increasing greenhouse gas concentrations will cause an increase of Asian summer monsoon precipitation variability.

“Changes in the monsoon mean duration and strength depend on the details of the (greenhouse gases) emission scenario.”

Do the changes mean weather forecasters will have a tough time ahead predicting the monsoon as they have had this year?

Indian Meteorological Department chief BP Yadav admitted that could be the case: “There are already some indications of increase in the variability of weather parameters, so when you have a high variability in any events like rainfall or temperature, definitely the work of predicting them becomes more difficult,” he said.

It would all be so much easier for everyone concerned if we could just linguistically lump the present in with the conditional future from the word go. Something like ‘Climate change is will being responsible for [insert climatological ravage here]’ should cover it.

Regardless of whether there’s a detectable impact of climate change on monsoon patterns, there are, according to the story itself, detectable impacts of a host of other factors. But as it is reported, that all gets lost in the hand-wringing about whether climate change might possibly have something – anything – to do with it. The chances are that were it not for the sniff of a climate scare angle, the fact that rainfall patterns this year are causing some big problems for Asian agriculture wouldn’t have made it onto the BBC at all.

It’s embarrassing. Why should it matter a jot whether climate change has anything to do with variations in rainfall if, as the article mentions, you don’t have the irrigation systems to cope with those variations? We often say that environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is usually in the context that it tends to disapprove of the very development that make people less vulnerable to the environment. But, as the BBC piece demonstrates, it is also true in the sense that environmentalism obscures the truth that lots of people are vulnerable in ways that have nothing to do with climate change whatsoever. That’s true now like it was in the past. It’s just a shame that there’s so little interest in changing it for the future.


  1. Robert Wood

    The enviro-mentalists’ attitude towards technology is very much like the Papal attitude towards contraception: We support it as long as it doesn’t work!!

  2. Kev of Oz

    Dear Editors,

    In I hope a similar vein and endorsing earlier observations you have made on the political discourse –

    here is a link to an oped piece in our national daily ( Murdoch press )


    “Carbon captures UK imagination”

    The author is a respected and experienced journalist and editor.

    And my reading suggests he has been utterly captured by the zeitgeist within your corridors of power – the undoubted energy of your Mili-Band of Brothers ( and Sisters ) LOL.

    “In Whitehall, many of the civil service advisers are young, enthusiasts and women. Behind the parties are tacticians who argue that climate change credentials are critical to carry the under-40 voters. ”

    That young political apparatchiks want to re-make the world urgently is not surprising. And, with enough reading, is it surprising to find longterm political correspondents happy to see momentum for change – almost any sort of change – actually snowballing for once ?

    The concern of course being – is this change ultimately worthwhile and merited, which is the main debate.

    However, I think this article demonstrates from an outsiders perspective why virtually no alternate views on climate and energy policy flow through to the elected representatives.

    Your government – and I would dare to suggest a lot of governments in the democratic, developed world – have been captured by one voice. History suggests that this will not resolve itself happily.

  3. John Bailo

    There is a more devious way to look at the word “climate” itself.

    What is climate? It’s an average over time.

    Well, as we know, the weather is never exactly the same over time.

    So, as each year passes, it impacts the climate over time.


    Here is a series of weather numbers:

    5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, …

    What is the average? The average is 5. The “climate” is five.

    Here is a series of weather numbers:

    1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 …

    The climate is 3.5

    After next year the climate is 4.

    The climate is changing due to the weather.

    The weather doesn’t “change” due to the “climate”.


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