There’s a difference between climate and weather. But only people who care about the truth are required to acknowledge that.
For years, scientists have cautioned policy makers, environmentalists and journalists not to tie the theory of climate change to any single heat wave, hurricane and other weather event. It would be wrong, they argued, to claim that one day’s temperature was the sign of a long-term trend.
Best to be judicious, the responsible people all agreed. To err on the side of caution. To maintain your credibility. That way people will trust you when you give them the facts on how dire the situation actually is.
Besides, the thinking went, the science is so conclusive. No one — not even, say, a conspiracy-wielding talking head or a demagoguing politician — could sustain the argument that we didn’t face a crisis that needed to be addressed ... right now. And why would anyone want do that anyway? They’d only be punishing their grandchildren.
Or so the argument went.
The restraint of those who let the truth get in the way of winning the hearts and minds of the American people is on display this summer as the Northern Hemisphere roasts. Despite a few exceptions, you don’t see “responsible,” mainstream journalists, environmentalists and scientists crowing that record-setting temperatures are evidence of climate change.
And when someone from the pro-science crowd does draw a connection between the weather and climate change, it’s generally buried under enough caveats and cautions to convince most couch potatoes to reach for the remote control.
“You can’t say any one heat wave is caused by global warming,” Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change, told the Christian Science Monitor. “But you can say that what global warming does is it makes events just like this more likely.”
Careful wording is much less fun than making facts up as you go along — much less liberating than the carefree approach of the anti-science crowd. Take the celebration that greeted last winter’s snow days in Washington (which, after all, is the center of the universe).
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell giggled when asked about climate legislation during one blizzard. He mumbled something about Al Gore and chortled some more.
"It's going to keep snowing in DC until Al Gore cries ‘uncle’,” another rightwing senator tweeted. (What is it about Al Gore and these people?)
The family of a senator from Oklahoma built an igloo and dubbed it “Al Gore’s new home.”
Don’t bore us with the fact that blizzards have long showed up in climate science modeling. The Snowpocalypse, in Rush Limbaugh’s words, drove “a nail in the coffin” of the global warming theory and exposed the “absurdity” of the “ongoing hoax.”
And in his best "Goodfellas" accent, famed science buff and theologian Glenn Back expounded: “I believe God is just saying, 'I got your global warming here, eh? You want a piece of global warming?'"
Looking for 'balance'
I tried to get each of the gentlemen mentioned above to wax comedic about this summer’s heat waves. Surely, they’d muster some quip about the 13 people in Tennessee and Mississippi whose deaths were attributed last week to the heat ... or about some 1,200 drowning deaths in Russia blamed in part on desperation to escape record-setting temperatures ... or about the plague of locusts that has swept into Mongolia.
If snow was an indication that climate change isn't happening, I asked the PR potentates for our celebrity deniers, is this summer's heat wave evidence that it is happening? I got no response. Go figure.
There’s a temptation to assign a false moral equivalence to both sides in the climate debate. This has been going on for years. It satisfies a deep human desire to take more interest in a dispute between two evenly matched sides. In the U.S. media, that translates into a convention that often mistakes “balance” for fairness.
The New York Times placed that convention on full display recently in an article on the nifty parallels between the climate change deniers’ use of snow to fit their narrative and the climate change believers’ use of heat to fit theirs. Except the article offered precious little evidence that the pro-science crowd is conflating weather and the climate in the way that the denial crowd did last winter.
The irony is that the narratives aren’t parallel at all — at least as far as the science is concerned. No credible scientist has argued that last winter’s blizzards contradicted climate change models. In fact, the most exhaustive account of climate change science — the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report — indicated long before last winter’s storms that we should expect more precipitation of all kinds because a warmer atmosphere is likely to evaporate more water. In winter, unsurprisingly, that means more snow.
Meanwhile, this summer’s heat waves actually do contribute to the mounting evidence of climate change. Last month was either the warmest or close to the warmest month ever, not just in the U.S., but also in Europe, Russia, east Asia and the Indian subcontinent. So far, this is the warmest year on record. And the last 10 years was the warmest decade.
The U.S. Senate responded to all that data last week by ceasing efforts to pass even a modest energy bill. Republican senators, it turns out, are united in their opposition. After all, passing an energy bill right now — in the midst of a heat wave — why, that would be irresponsible. Everyone knows there’s a big difference between the climate and weather.
Journalist Ken Edelstein writes the Planet Pundit column for the Mother Nature Network. From various coffee shops in Atlanta, he publishes an environmental news site at MyGreenATL.com.