Forget the Warm Winter: Let’s Talk About the Cold

COMMENTARY
By Michael D. Lemonick

This will come as a shock, I know, but it was really warm last month.

OK, just kidding. You know perfectly well that it was warm in March, and that the winter was unusually warm, too, in most parts of the U.S. You know because it was blasted from practically every news outlet in the country; Leno and Letterman and Conan and Jon Stewart probably joked about it, although I don’t stay up late enough to say for sure. And the media blast was perfectly appropriate, too: the normal is not (normally) newsworthy, while the bizarre and unusual and troubling generally is.

Much of the coverage focused solely on shattered records, with little mention of climate change — unless it was to point out, as CNN did, for example, that, “Short-term weather patterns . . . are poor indicators of global climate trends . . . ”

But others, including ABC News, mentioned global warming more prominently as a possible suspect, and those of us who specialize in climate coverage, including Climate Central, almost universally did, too. Nobody asserted that the heat was primarily due to climate change, which would have been scientifically bogus, but we did make the perfectly valid point that a warming planet raises the odds (or “loads the dice”) for these events to happen more often.

Even the most vehement of climate hawks, Joe Romm at climateprogress.org, included the caveats — pretty far down in his story, to be sure — in a post provocatively titled “March Came In Like A Lamb, Went Out Like a Globally Warmed Lion on Steroids Who Smashed 15,000 Heat Records.”

Seems like we’re doing our job, right? After all, we’re supposed to be raising the public’s consciousness about global warming. But I think we may actually be shooting ourselves in the foot. The problem is that next winter, or next March, could easily turn out to be unusually cold. If it is, we’re going to have to run a flurry of stories explaining how this, too, is perfectly consistent with climate change.

For the average person, I suspect this will sound awfully fishy. Unusually hot weather is evidence for global warming, but cold weather isn’t evidence against it? Got a bridge in Brooklyn you want to sell me while you’re at it?

In fact, it’s not fishy at all: ups and downs will always happen, even against the backdrop of an overall rise in global temperature (we ran this terrific animation a while back that beautifully illustrates the concept).

But people are never going to get that if we keep flogging the heat wave-global warming connection so relentlessly. I have two pieces of evidence to offer. The first is Snowmageddon, the blizzard that hit the Washington, D.C., area a few years ago. We climate communicators had never bothered to talk much about how global warming can trigger powerful snowstorms; when this one struck, people naturally thought it meant the planet isn’t warming after all. “Evidently,” my former colleague Phil Duffy wrote after the fact, “we experts have not done a good job of communicating where weather comes from, and how weather is different from climate.”

Credit: flickr/dancingnomad3

My second bit of evidence has to do with the skeptical assertion that global warming has stopped, based on the fact that temperatures have been relatively flat over the past decade or so. The assertion is bogus, but just like with Snowmageddon, it feels right to the average person, and we’ve had to scramble to explain why it isn’t. If climate communicators had been reminding people all along that natural variability or other effects can make global warming level off, or even reverse, for a decade or more, before resuming its upward climb, we might not have to do what seems to be backpedaling.

So here’s my prescription: every time we point triumphantly to a new temperature record or a new drought or a new, worst-ever wildfire season as proof that climate change is really happening, we should remind readers, in a clear and unmistakable way, that next year could go the other way — and I don’t mean just the pro forma “no one event can be taken as proof of climate change, but . . . ” disclaimer we routinely stick in before getting back to the point. I even wish there had been a few headlines reading something like “It’s Hot, But Don’t Be Surprised if Next March is Freezing Cold.”

So I’m saying it here and now: next winter might bring us freezing weather across the U.S. Next March could be among the coldest on record. If that happens, it won’t suggest for a moment that global warming isn’t happening. But if we wait until after the fact to explain it, people might easily conclude that we’re scrambling to cover our rear ends.

And I, for one, wouldn’t blame them.