We, who have just endured four of the warmest weeks the eastern two-thirds of the United States has experienced since we started keeping records, have been told repeatedly by media pundits that “you can’t attribute this particular spell of weather to global warming.” This statement, while true in a narrow sense, is false in a broader contextual sense. Worse, such “truths” are confusing and immobilizing. They make it more difficult to gather the impetus for the essential, society-wide behavior shift we need to avoid impending ecological catastrophes.
I’ve studied weather and climate as a hobby since I was eight years old. I find this deluge of misinformation particularly frustrating. This is not complex science. Simply put, climate consists of the meteorological conditions (temperature, precipitation, wind, etc.) that prevail in a region. Weather, on the other hand refers to the atmospheric conditions at any given time and place. It follows, unless you can find a place on earth where the weather is usually the same 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, that no given weather is equal to the climate of that place. But it is simultaneously, and infinitely more importantly true, that the prevailing weather in a given location is a manifestation of that region’s climate.
For instance, the climate of my region (interior Southern New England) in the last decade, when compared to the climate of this same area when I first started studying weather in the 1950’s, has more hot days in the summer. Spring warmth comes earlier. This causes the grass to turn green and the trees to leaf out ten days to two weeks earlier. The fall frosts arrive later causing peak colors to appear closer to October 20th than October 10th.
But just as was the case 55 years ago, our weather is variable. So we still have cold and snow. In fact, because our climate has become somewhat wetter, we’ve had a few winters since 2005 with tremendous snowfall totals. But this does not contradict the overall warming trend. The winters with intense snowfall have had a shorter duration, and recently we’ve had more warmer, wetter snows than colder, drier snows. And so, the incredibly warm four weeks we just experienced are most definitely in tune with our current climate.
Many might say: “What do you expect? This kind of in-depth analysis can’t fit into a sound bite.” But those, who like me, habitually watch The Weather Channel (and you may be surprised to learn that there are millions of us), have seen the meteorologists repeatedly provide analyses of other weather-related issues that are just as complicated as the two paragraphs I’ve written above. But instead they, and many other meteorologists on hundreds of local channels, merely repeat the mantra, “you can’t attribute this particular spell of weather to global warming,” before listing the hundreds of record high temperatures set in the last 24 hours.
Rather than shake our heads in cynicism and defeat, I suggest that we complain. It isn’t hard to email or write a letter to your local TV station or to The Weather Channel protesting the inanity I’ve quoted twice above. The television stations tout these reporters as professional meteorologists, and as professionals they should know better.
Denial and inaction are easier than facing the consequences of rapid global warming. At this moment, however, when over a hundred million of us have just experienced horrific heat, more people than ever before should be receptive to the idea that climate change is upon us. While this acknowledgement is not the same as taking corrective action, it is a necessary first step.