The swirling relationship between science, weather and public opinion

Dan Upham

If you live in one of the parts of the United States currently locked in a deep freeze and have stepped outside in the last few days, you’re likely aware that it’s been cartoonishly cold. Exhibit A: Boiling water turning instantly to snow:

If you haven’t ventured outside, a reasonable course of action with these record low temperatures, you’re likely aware of the chill beyond your door due to a frenzy of media attention. From The Daily Show to Crossfire and many outlets in between, there’s been much discussion about what this insane weather has to do with global warming.

Climate deniers are exploiting the cold as “proof” that global warming isn’t reality. That’s just not factually defensible, but it’s also inaccurate to say we know climate change is responsible for the freeze.

So, why is it so cold?

“The low temperatures that we are experiencing now are due to the polar vortex, a consistent cold-core low pressure system in the Arctic that is strongest in northern hemisphere winter when it can penetrate into the mid-latitudes due to a seasonal southward shift of the jet stream. (the jet stream typically holds the vortex in place to the north)” EDF climate scientist Ilissa Ocko explained. “In this case, the jet stream was pushed anomalously southward by a high pressure system that developed in western Canada. A meandering jet stream with enhanced amplitudes and increased meridional (N-S) flow—as opposed to zonal (E-W) flow—causes erratic temperature fluctuations that can be persistent.”

While we are experiencing freezing temperatures in the central and eastern U.S., the same polar vortex has caused unseasonably warm temperatures and moist air in Europe. Meanwhile, Australia is suffering through a week-long heat wave with temperatures nearing 130ºF.

Several recent studies (here, here, and here) have linked erratic weather in the northern continents to the warming of the Arctic from climate change, specifically due to sea ice loss that contributes to changes in atmospheric circulation patterns. However, Ilissa cautions that we can’t definitively say that the jet stream shift is due to climate change, and there are studies that suggest otherwise. What we can say, categorically, is that it is intellectually dishonest to suggest that the current cold means global warming isn’t happening.

“Our planet is freezing, record low temps…this very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullsh*t has got to stop”

Climate scientist Donald Trump recently tweeted a version of the above, and while his view may seem laughable to those who understand climate science, the fact is that some people can’t accept the coexistence of global warming and cold temperatures. No matter the particulars of the argument, they all seem to boil down to “Global warming means it should always be warm, and it’s cold here, damn it!”*

Shira Silver, a climate communications specialist at EDF with a background in political science and psychology, shared information about the surprising connection between opinion polls, our own personal experiences, and belief in climate change. “A 2009 University of Chicago study found that asking about global warming in a hot room makes people more likely to believe it’s happening. On the other hand, a 2010 study from Muhlenberg College and the University of Michigan found that when snowfall was more than 50% above average people were less likely to say that climate change is real, and vice versa.”

“Overwhelmingly, when people are asked whether global warming is real, they rely on personal experiences,” Shira continued. “But a new study from Yale University shows even your memory of a recent hot summer or mild winter can be impacted by whether you think that climate change is real. When asked about the above-normal summer 2010 temperatures, respondents who are ‘dismissive’ about global warming were 32% less likely than those who are ‘concerned,’ to report experiencing a warmer-than-normal summer.”

As Shira reminded me, climate change means a change in the overall system, not just in our backyard. So if someone tells you global warming and this cold weather don’t jive, remind them that 2012 was among the top 10 hottest years ever globally, the state of California had its driest year ever, and Typhoon Haiyan was the strongest cyclone on record to make landfall. And if you happen to venture out into your backyard, don’t forget your booties: In the immortal words of the DJ from Groundhog Day, “It’s cooold out there today.”

*Other analogous examples that illustrate the fallacy of the “It’s too cold for global warming” line of thought include:

-I’ve been losing weight, so the obesity epidemic is nonsense!

-I haven’t experienced racism, so racism is a thing of the past!

-Economic slowdown? The raise I got last year says otherwise!

Add your own to the comments below. 

See 3 comments