Why I Like Global Warming

COMMENTARY
Mike Lemonick

 

“It’s so cold outside!” a woman in the elevator said to me the other day. But it really wasn’t. It was in the 20s, and in Princeton, N.J., that may be below average for February, but it isn’t at all unusual. We often have stretches of a week or more when the temperature never gets above the low 20s, and it’s not rare to see a reading in the teens for a few days in a row. So that particular day wasn’t terribly cold, and the cold snap, such as it was, had lasted 48 hours at most.

A glimpse of the 2010 winter in Princeton, NJ. This year, temperatures are starkly different  reaching the high 50's, low 60's at times. Credit: The University Press Club

The rest of the winter, aside from a few short blips of not-so-frigid weather, has been ridiculously warm, with daytime highs usually in the 40s, 50s and even occasionally in the low 60s. And as I left the office yesterday, with the temperature hovering just below 50, I said to myself, “This is great! I wouldn’t mind if winters stayed like this from now on!”

That won’t happen right away. Even with global warming, this unusually warm winter has more to do with short-term fluctuations in local climate. Europe is having an unusually cold winter, and next year both places may return to more familiar conditions. But in the long term, balmy winters are likely to become more common here. The idea of climate change doesn’t seem so bad, suddenly.

But what was I thinking? I’ve been writing about the enormous risks posed by climate change for more than 20 years. I know about the rising seas that threaten hundreds of millions of people, in some of the biggest, most economically vital cities on the planet. I know about the extreme weather — heat waves, droughts, torrential rainstorms — that climate change is likely to bring. I know about threats to agriculture, disrupted ecosystems, the extinction of species, the acidification of the ocean, the melting glaciers, the whole mess. And I know about countries like India and China and Brazil, which are growing so rapidly that their output of heat-trapping greenhouse gases could make the problem much worse before the world can even begin to deal with the emissions we already have.

Yet even with all that knowledge, I jumped right to the thought that climate change — in winters, in New Jersey, anyway — is something I might just welcome. And that gives me a new appreciation for the tough job communicators have in getting people to care about the looming threat.

It’s not nearly as difficult, of course, in the middle of a heat wave like the one that hit Texas and Oklahoma last summer. It’s not so hard when a one-two punch from back-to-back tropical storms triggers deadly floods in the Northeast, or when an out-of-season snowstorm cripples that same region a month later. In Europe, people shivering through the harsh winter are a receptive audience.

But most of the time, in most places, the effects of climate change are subtle and intellectual arguments don’t always convince people to take the coming changes seriously. And even when the climate goes crazy in a bad way, people tend to reassure themselves that it’s a fluke.

But the warmer Februaries here should give people pause, as should the likelihood that Quebec will no longer face competition from Vermont maple syrup as the Green Mountain state heats up, and that America’s grain belt may migrate to Saskatchewan. There will be winners and losers in a changing climate, as scientists have acknowledged all along. The losers are likely to outnumber the winners, though, and the overall disruption in the world’s economy that climate change could bring might not make winning as sweet as some of us might think.

It almost makes me regret that the thermometer is supposed to hit 50 today. Almost, but not quite.