Opposite sides of North America have been experiencing some unusual weather the last few weeks, with multiple snowstorms pummeling the eastern United States, and snow noticeably lacking at the Olympics in Vancouver.
Massive piles of snow in and around Washington, D.C. brought out the climate loonies — Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma built an igloo on Capitol Hill last week and affixed a cardboard sign that read "Al Gore's New Home." Rush Limbaugh took the opportunity to mock the press conference announcing the creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) Climate Service because it was forced to be held by conference call instead of an in-person news conference. Oh, the delicious irony.
If only it were even remotely true.
A few snow storms don't say anything about global warming one way or the other. And the same holds true for the balmy weather in Vancouver right now. It doesn't say anything about the long-term state of Earth's climate.
The problem is, both sides in this feud are equally guilty of ignoring the science. People who think global warming isn't happening because it's snowing outside are wrong. And so are those who say that it IS happening, o because it's been warm through the first five days of the Winter Olympics.
I'm not saying anything new here, but the whole idea behind climate change is that it's happening to the entire planet. It takes years, even decades to move the needle on Earth's climate. Meanwhile, heat waves, cold snaps, droughts, and snowstorms come and go. As this piece in Time points out "Weather is what will happen next weekend; climate is what will happen over the next decades and centuries." Again, old news.
And yet, we routinely conflate current and near-term weather conditions with what's happening to the global climate. It's exactly the wrong thing to do, and yet we do it every day. Why? Because, let's be honest, everyone enjoys complaining about the weather.
That's completely fine: getting frustrated about something that is utterly out of your control and can ruin your day makes sense — like a mysterious charge on your credit card bill, say.
But statements about fickle weather have little place in the discussion about large-scale climate change. Studies do suggest more stormy weather is possible as the atmosphere becomes supercharged with moisture due to global warming. And if parsed just right, good arguments can be made that explain short-term weather in context of long-term climate records.
Take Jeff Masters of Wunder Blog, for instance, who explains:
This is a rare example of good explanatory writing. Trouble is, it's complex. Will the average person seek out a multi-layered, nuanced explanation about how climate and weather interact when catchalls about "proving" and "disproving" global warming are being tossed about in most mass media outlets?
That kind of oversimplification is dishonest no matter whether it's climate skeptics or environmentalists who indulge in it. It only serves to prop up the "debate" about global warming; something that should have been dead a long time ago. It's time to move on.
Image: NASA/MODIS Rapid Response Team