Saturday, January 4, 2014

In the news: Does cold weather disprove climate change?

Climate change has been a hot topic in the news media and social networking world lately, but the discourse has been far from productive.  Climate change deniers have gleefully taken the opportunity to point to the unfathomably cold winter storm currently blasting the eastern half of the United States, as well as the story about climate change scientists getting stuck in sea ice in Antarctica (oh, they love the irony of that situation!) as "proof" that climate change is not happening. They've even gone so far as to suggest that the earth is, in fact, experiencing "global cooling".

I think this is a good time to review the difference between weather and climate.

Merriam-Webster defines WEATHER as follows:
"the state of the air and atmosphere at a particular time and place : the temperature and other outside conditions (such as rain, cloudiness, etc.) at a particular time and place."
Key to understanding weather is that it is limited to a particular time and place.  Weather is a short-term condition-- a single point in time.

The same dictionary defines CLIMATE as follows:
"the average course or condition of the weather at a place usually over a period of years as exhibited by temperature, wind velocity, and precipitation."
 As the definition indicates, "climate" refers to long-term weather trends-- the accumulation of weather over a period of time.

Top graph:,                                                                                  Bottom Graph:
 Pictured above are two graphs from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  The top graph shows two-day temperatures for Seattle, WA:  This is weather.  The bottom graph shows the average annual temperature for the years 1900-2012 for the region in Washington State that includes the city of Seattle: this is climate.  You can see the danger of drawing conclusions from short-term weather systems: according to the graph above, the temperature in Seattle is decreasing.  However, the green trend line shown in the bottom graph clearly indicates that long-term temperature trends relating to climate are increasing.

When climate change skeptics point to the frigid east coast storm and claim that climate change (actually, they use the outdated term "global warming") is not happening, they are referring to weather.  Climate change means that our planet's climate, or long-term weather trends, will change, not the day-to-day weather.

So what is the big deal here? Why does it matter if certain groups of people don't agree that climate change is happening and do not differentiate between weather and climate? 

It matters because climate change is a serious problem that will threaten our very ability to survive in decades to come.  Changing temperature trends and precipitation patterns will affect agriculture and our ability to produce enough food, it will affect our water supply, it is acidifying the oceans and destroying marine species and the industries that rely on them, and it is expected to lead to more frequent severe weather events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, heat waves and floods, all of which will result in loss of life, property, and livelihoods. All of these things are happening now.

It matters because we have a very narrow window of time in which to take dramatic action in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change.  The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report gravely warns that if we do not act in the next few decades, then our society will be facing a wildly different world in the latter half of this century--a world where merely surviving could be a challenge.  The more people that are skeptical of climate change and drag their feet on action--or worse, choose actions that take us in the opposite direction (drill baby drill, anyone?)-- the more difficult it is going to be for us to actually make meaningful and timely progress on the issue.

It matters because there are generations of human beings yet to be born who do not have a voice regarding how their future home is being shaped.  Are we going to selfishly stick with personal or political prejudices as an excuse not to act on an issue that will affect our children and every generation to follow?  I would like to think that our society can be better than that and rise above our short-sighted, self-involved personal agendas.

It matters because we have NOTHING TO LOSE.  Let's just say for argument's sake that the climate change deniers are correct and climate change is not happening, but we still take action as if it is.  So, we end up creating a world that runs solely on renewable energy (creates millions of jobs, significantly reduces air pollution and the accompanying health problems, protects our environment, makes us more self-reliant, and saves money), is built with more efficient buildings and infrastructure (saves money), relies on locally, sustainably produced food, clothing, and other goods (supports local farmers and business, ensures resources are not depleted, minimizes pollution)... does that sound so awful?

It's time to stop pointing at every freezing weather event as evidence against climate change, and instead become educated about the bigger, more relevant picture: long-term climate trends, which are heading in a warmer, more volatile direction in the decades to come.

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