Monday, August 29, 2011
Hurricanes/Heat = Global Warming, but Cold/Snow = Lunacy? How to Handle Isolated Weather Events When Discussing Climate Change?
As this is an issue that I have struggled with for some time now, I write this blog post to ask for advice, guidance, and the perspective of others - so please chime in with comments.
It seems to be the bane of existence for those familiar with climate change science - the person who posts on Facebook or Twitter, or who boldly asserts in the classroom or office, "it was a record low in X city, Y state today - suuuurrreeee global warming is real. And there's been record snowfall to boot!" These types of misunderstandings of climate change science have resulted in a shift from "global warming" terminology to "global weirding" or "climate change" - a recognition that though the earth's overall temperature will increase over time, climatic conditions will be quite variable in any given location.
Stephen Colbert has parodied this thought process quite well in the following video:
When people make comments that cold weather days must disprove global warming, Colbert quips, "Folks, that is simple observational research: whatever just happened is the only thing that is happening . . . [Currently] it is dark outside. Now based on this latest data, we can only assume that the sun has been destroyed. The world has plunged into total darkness. Soon all our crops will die and it's only a matter of time before the mole people emerge from the center of the earth to enslave us in forever night....thanks a lot Al Gore."
Even though I agree with the silliness of such arguments, I cannot help but wonder what our responsibility is as educators, scientists, and other professionals in the field when it comes to isolated weather events that appear to support "our" position. Over the course of this summer I have seen numerous posts on Twitter and various news articles and blog posts from both environmental groups and professionals asserting what essentially sounds a lot like "See! Record heat! Climate change is real!" Also, I saw even more posts, and some articles, during recent Hurricane Irene that seemed to highlight this one hurricane event as proof of climate change. Don't get me wrong - I certainly trust the statistics on warming trends and increased hurricane frequency and intensity over the last few decades. There is little doubt that those trends reinforce and form part of the foundation of climate change science. But my question is more about framing the issue. It is really hard for me to criticize someone for arguing that cold weather events disprove global warming, and then turn around and say that a single hurricane or a hot month of July support my "position." This is despite the fact that some may say "well sure, of course it is ok to do just that, because we are right. The data is on our side. So of course it is ok to point to these events as proof." That may very well be true, but something about that approach just doesn't feel right. I think it may be one of those arguments we should consider dropping so as not to allow the delivery of the message to disrupt or confuse the message itself.
In the end, I believe that if those pointing out the reality of climate change do not want to sound exactly like those they criticize, it might be in our best interest to not use hyperbolic sounding arguments based upon isolated weather events. And trust me, this is hard for me - I like hyperbole. But maybe we should stick to the whole story, and not just parts of it? What are your thoughts?
- Blake Hudson