Green America: Growing the Green Economy for People and the Planet

Precipitation is not Temperature:
There's Still a Climate Crisis, Even if it's Snowing

March 2, 2010

Snow in Washington, DC Last month, while the snowbound residents of East Coast cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, DC were busy shoveling themselves out from the inconvenience of two mammoth back-to-back snowstorms, there were others who found the freakish weather to be a convenient reason to spring into action. 

Those who relished the snowstorms were the climate-change deniers, who used the occasion of the wintry weather to amplify the false message that climate change isn’t real.

“It’s going to keep snowing in DC until Al Gore cries uncle,” tweeted Sen. Jim DeMint (R, SC), while Sen. James Inhofe (R, OK) took to Facebook to distribute mocking images of his grandchildren playing in a snow-fort, also dedicated to Mr. Gore, designated whipping-boy of the climate-change denial crowd.

The snow might make a satisfying visual backdrop to symbolize the opposite of “global warming” for those ignoring the science behind the weather patterns, but far from being the ultimate rebuke to climate-change activists, the fierce snowstorms represent more of a wintertime Katrina – a wake-up call from Mother Nature that something is going on with our atmosphere.

The reasons?

Fierce snowstorms aren’t caused by excessively cold temperatures, but by excessive moisture in the air at the proper temperature for snow.  A 2006 study by the American Meteorological Society confirmed that up to 80 percent of US snowstorms occur in warmer-than-normal years, and that “a warmer future climate will generate more winter storms.” 

Simply put, a warming planet will evaporate more of its ocean water into its atmosphere, and a warmer atmosphere will hold more of that moisture, which eventually has to fall as rain or snow.  Climate change means we can expect more winter storms, not fewer -- which comes as no surprise to those who study climate change. The US Global Change Research program, a federal government project designed to forecast climate change effects in the United States, predicted exactly this, just last fall, reporting that “strong cold season storms are likely to become stronger and more frequent.”

The use of the snowstorms to deny climate change is just the latest in a series of manufactured public controversies that expose climate-change deniers as opportunistic and unconcerned with the facts.  Just as tobacco apologists in the 1980s and 1990s pursued a strategy of feeding public doubt about the health risks of smoking, fossil-fuel apologists have no recourse but to feed public doubt about climate change.  And in each case, those behind the misinformation campaigns seem to be primarily concerned with protecting their own bottom line.

For example, consider last fall’s “e-mail” controversy surrounding a series of leaked e-mails from climate scientists, providing details into various research questions and professional disagreements over the past 13 years.  The e-mails did little more than demonstrate competitiveness amongst scientists working in the climate-change field, and yet minor data points and quibbles over various research methods were inflated to cast doubt amongst a public unable to parse through the massive amounts of information released in the e-mail data dump.   Those who were able to review the e-mails through a scientific lens – 25 leading US climate scientists – sent a letter to Congress in December stating:  "The content of the stolen e-mails has no impact whatsoever on our overall understanding that human activity is driving dangerous levels of global warming,"

And the primary skeptic group behind the e-mail controversy?  The Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change which has ties to the energy company Exxon-Mobil, a company that has a lot to lose in the shift away from climate-change-causing fossil fuels. The name of this skeptic group is itself designed to create confusion in the public mind with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: the international body of scientists that publishes assessments of climate change based on peer reviewed studies.

Often, sowing public confusion is enough to stop legislation from moving forward in the US; see the health care bill and the fear of "death panels" as the most recent example.  Deniers have done well at forestalling legislation or regulation for years on some of the most pressing public dangers, from tobacco to asbestos to lead.  

Climate change is an order of magnitude more severe than any of these threats, and what’s more, our action on climate change comes with a deadline.  If we wait too long to reduce and reverse our emissions of carbon into our atmosphere, it will be too late.

--Andrew Korfhage

 

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