A record-cold “Arctic Blast” is set to hit the East Coast this weekend.
And undoubtedly, some people will point to it and say that it proves global warming isn’t for real.
That’s totally false: categorically, definitely, unequivocally, scientifically false. And yet it’s made over and over and over again by climate denialists and their paid-for politicians in Washington.
For example, Donald Trump tweeted just before New Year’s Eve:
Now, in fairness, that wasn’t explicitly denying climate change because of a cold snap. But, as Vox meticulously researched, Trump has tweeted climate denial 115 times, including this chestnut:
And so on.
Or remember Senator James Inhofe, one of the leading climate deniers (and former boss of Andrew Wheeler, set to be the next deputy EPA administrator), tossing a snowball on the floor of the Senate in February, 2015?
Or read the good people at TownHall.com informing us that “extremely cold temperatures … expose the flawed predictions of the global warming alarmists, thus falsifying their climate-doom propaganda.”
(Incidentally, the writer of that piece, Vijay Jayaraj, is on the payroll of the Cornwall Alliance, a religious anti-environmentalist organization, which mostly funded by the right-wing dark money group Donors Trust, which is mostly funded by the ‘Knowledge and Progress Fund’ which, you guessed it, is part of the Koch Brothers network.)
Here, then, is the definitive list of four reasons that cold winters do not disprove global warming.
1. Climate Is Personality, Weather Is a Mood
The most important thing to remember, when it comes to climate change, is that it is never possible to trace any single weather event—hurricane, cold snap, dry spell—to climate change. As University of Georgia geography professor John Knox puts it, climate is personality; weather is mood.
In other words, the relevant data for climate change are long-term trends, not short term phenomena (generally, climatologists look at thirty year averages). And there’s no doubt about those trends. According to NASA, the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1997. Based on carbon samples, the NOAA says that the last three decades have, on average, been the warmest on 1,000 years.
Not coincidentally, the concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have risen during this period as well.
When you look carefully enough, even the record lows of this coming weekend are part of an overall warming trend. In the 1980s, there were 1.14 record highs recorded for every one record low. In the 1990s, there were 1.36. And in the 2000s, 2.04.
That doesn’t mean there are never record lows—but there are fewer record lows and more record highs. The trendline is unmistakable.
Oh, and in 2017, the ratio was off the charts, almost nine to one.
So, while you can always play with the data to find a couple of months or even years where average temperatures fall, when you zoom back to the big picture, there is no doubt whatsoever.
Now, climate change does make certain events more likely. Heating up the oceans will likely cause more hurricanes and severe storms, just as we’ve seen recently. But just as it’s irresponsible for climate realists to blame an individual hurricane on climate change, so it’s irresponsible for climate denialists to blame an individual cold snap on climate change.
Okay, but if climate change is causing an overall warming trend, why are there so many cold winters? Well, because:
2. There Is No ‘Global Warming.’ There’s Global Climate Disruption.
“Global warming” is a nice sounding term, but it’s never been quite accurate.
The Earth’s climatic system is extremely complicated. And so while the core feedback loop of climate change is simple—more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps more heat, like glass traps heat in a greenhouse—its effects are anything but. Some parts of the world get hotter, others get colder. And some are thrown into chaos.
That’s why my favorite term to describe what’s going on is “Global Climate Disruption.” The overall trend is predictable, but the individual impacts are not—we’re playing with a complex system on a level never before seen in Earth’s history. Most of the consequences will be unforeseen.
3. Yes, in Fact, Climate Change Sometimes Makes Winter Worse
In some cases, the changes caused by anthropogenic alterations to the atmosphere will cause more wintry effects. For example, climate change is causing the Great Lakes to freeze later and less than they historically have. Those warmer lakes lead to more moisture in the air, which leads to more “lake effect” snowfall., just as we’ve seen in recent years.
To take another example, the term “polar vortex” is now part of the lexicon. It’s when Arctic air swoops southward as far as the mid-Atlantic states due to high pressure systems over the North Pole. Until the last decade, this phenomenon was fairly rare, but since 2010, it’s happened almost every year, several times each winter. That’s why the Arctic is experiencing record high temperatures and ice melts while the northeastern United States has been colder than usual in the winter. Our (temperature) loss is the Arctic’s gain.
4. The Northeastern United States Is Not the World
Perhaps this is obvious, but a small swath of land from Maine to Georgia is not representative of the entire Earth’s surface. And as it happens, the warming effects of global climate disruption have not been as keenly felt there as elsewhere.
For example, check out this global temperature data from the University of Maine’s “Climate Reanalyzer.” It shows that on Jan. 1, 2018, half of the United States was much colder than average but nearly everywhere else in the world—including the West Coast—was much hotter than average. That’s just one day, of course, but you can page through the Climate Reanalyzer yourself and see how often the pattern repeats.
In fact, the same week that “Senator Snowball” brought snow into the Senate, scientists confirmed that a 618-square-mile Antarctic ice sheet would disintegrate by the end of this decade. Which ice matters more, do you think?
Why is the Eastern U.S. anomalous in this way? Most likely, the warmer Arctic has caused the jet stream to shift, causing hotter air to come up to the Western U.S. and colder air to dip down in the East. But that’s not known for sure.
That, by the way, is the kind of “uncertainty” that exists in climate science. There is no uncertainty as to the overall trends and the causation between anthropogenic emissions and temperature rise. There is uncertainty on the details.
So, when you see climate deniers hype up the uncertainty of the science, look closer: It’s never about the basic process of global climate disruption. It’s just about the specific effects.
But there is no excuse for confusing weather and climate. When someone says, “It’s cold out, so much for global warming,” the only thing they’re revealing is their own ignorance. As Prince said, sometimes it snows in April.