It’s Cold Outside! Is Climate Change -Really- Over?

January 07, 2010

Most people in the Northern Hemisphere are deep within the clutches of winter’s cold. Washington, DC (where I live) received record levels of snow in December, and January has been cold enough to keep me indoors more than I care to admit. This same story is playing out all over the United States. With the cold – crops in the Southeast that are not accustomed to the cold are freezing, and the normally adept American heartland is coping with wind chills that are dipping well into negative figures. So what is the deal? Did we already solve the climate crisis with reductions and carbon offsets? Does this prove that climate change was never happening in the first place? Unfortunately, the answer to these questions is no. While your actions to reduce your carbon footprint today are immensely important, there is a lot more work to be done as the existence of cold weather does not disprove the existence of man-made climate change. Even in a warming world, there will still be winter and there will still be seasons. It is easy to forget those hot summer days when it is 10 degrees outside, but it doesn’t mean that the summer wasn’t hot. The easiest to understand write-up (that I found) about this cold winter is offered to us by the Christian Science Monitor Bright Green Blog. To paraphrase the three reasons why cold weather doesn’t negate climate change (and I highly suggest going over to read the piece):

  1. It’s not actually that cold – it is cold right now, but it is not like every place is setting record lows. Some might even say that winters like this are more like the winters we used to have; but due to a recent string of warmer than average winters this one just feels colder.
  2. Some places are really hot right now– Australia and New Zealand are currently in the midst of record heat waves, and Bulgaria is close to 72 degrees right now. The 2000s were the hottest decade on record, with the 1990s closely trailing. In fact, over the last ten years, the only continent to not experience warmer than average temperatures was North America.
  3. Nobody said it would never get cold again – Winter is supposed to be colder than Summer – and a cold streak is perfectly reasonable in winter. But with climate change, the incidence of record cold days to record warm days has shown a measurable and significant drop over the last 60 years.

There are other reasons for why this cold weather doesn’t mean an end to climate change explained in the article that I do encourage you to read. My take on the weather is two fold:

  1. People have short-term memories – it is hard to remember the summer heat when you are bundled up, your toes are cold and your nose is running like a faucet.
  2. People confuse weather with climate – it is nearly impossible to link any single weather event to climate change – hot or cold, catastrophic or normal – there are just too many factors at play. So one cold streak doesn’t disprove climate change just like one warm streak doesn’t prove it. The best measures of the climate come from scientific analysis and from observing long term trends.

Remember this winter as you are judiciously using your furnace to stay warm that this doesn’t mean that the climate has been saved. It is still our responsibility to fight climate change and to reduce what we can, and offset what we can’t.