From Snowy Atlanta to Sunny Sochi, It's All About Global Weirding

Every time the thermometer drops, another anti-science politician mocks climate change as a fallacy. Here’s why they’re wrong.

David Tulis/AP

So much for “HotLanta.” Georgia is starting to look a lot like the opening scene from The Day After Tomorrow. The governor has declared a state of emergency for 89 counties as a wave of “crippling ice” befalls much of The Peach State in a storm the National Weather Service warns, “may be of historic proportions.” This statewide IcePocalypseMageddon occurs a little more than a week after Georgia’s last devastating ice storm, when the National Guard was called in to aid thousands of people stranded in their homes, vehicles, and schools. A few weeks prior, the polar vortex dropped temperatures from Chicago to Mexico, breaking more than 50 records and leaving Minneapolis with sub-zero temperatures for 62 straight hours. In short, America’s 2014 weather has gone from Winter Wonderland to Class 3 Kill Storm.

That U.S. weather patterns seem more at home in the Book of Revelation than February hasn’t made an impact on Senator Ted Cruz, who joked to attendees of the Conservative Policy Summit about the nip in the air: “Al Gore told me this wouldn’t happen.” This sentiment has been echoed across social media by climate-change skeptics:

The “If global warming is real, then why is it cold out?” line of argument has been around since the early days of the climate change debate, but the positively Hoth-esque temperatures have increased the volume of those hoping to undercut the “inconvenient truth” of anthropogenic global warming. So, does the recent spate of cold snaps prove Al Gore a filthy, PowerPoint-loving, Oscar-winning liar? No. Sorry, Donald.

Most obviously, climate is different than weather—that’s why the Midwest and Northeast have faced three snowstorms in the past two weeks while the drought in California has been so severe that water deliveries from reservoirs to the Central Valley have been cut to zero. Climate trends are exactly that: trends. One swallow doesn’t make a summer, and one blisteringly cold month doesn’t prove 97 percent of climate scientists wrong.

Another key component of “global warming” is right there in the name: “global.” In December 2013, North America was colder than average, but Russia and most of Europe were far hotter. Despite what Ted Cruz thinks (or wants), the world extends beyond the continental United States, and most of it has been crazy hot. For every cold snap in the U.S., there’s a wildfire in Australia so intense that it creates its own weather.

It’s also important to note that although, baby, it’s cold outside, it’s not nearly as cold as it was generations ago. The East River froze at least a dozen times between 1780 and 1888. In fact, after a particularly hard winter in 1866-1867, frustration with halted ferry service eventually led to the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. As webcomic xkcd noted, St. Louis, once the frozen home to a handful of sub-zero temperatures every year, hasn’t had a day that cold since the 1990s. That’s the thing about extreme weather: It’s extreme. The colds get colder, the hots get hotter, and the hurricanes get more destructive.

The global trend is clear: The average global surface temperature has risen roughly three-quarters of a degree Celsius since 1899. Year-to-year variation, however, is another set of data altogether. Rises in global temperature aren’t linear. Some years, average global temperatures rise sharply; other years, they fall or stay the same (some of this can be attributed to El Niño weather anomalies). Volcanic eruptions, solar flares, and yes, polar vortexes can all affect surface temperature.

Hard scientific proof hasn’t been able to melt the resolve of skeptics, however. According to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the percentage of Americans who believe global warming is happening has dropped seven points, a number that’s bound to go up after this latest deep freeze: The results were “likely influenced by the relatively cold winter of 2012-13 in the United States and an unusually cold March just before the survey was conducted.” Fortunately, the number of Americans who refuse to believe in climate change’s existence at all is a relatively small 16 percent. For those whose opinions are frozen in time: Let it go.