Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Cold Weather and Global Warming

This winter that has just mercifully ended was the 4th coldest in Illinois history. Is that proof that global warming is a hoax?

No, because 2014 was the warmest year on record for the whole Earth. Both the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in separate sets of measurements, determined that 2014 was warmer than any previous year. The ten warmest years since 1880 have all occurred since 1998.

The science of measuring global temperature is complex. NASA uses thousands of separate measurements across the globe to compile a single number representing average global temperature for the year. AAverage@ is an important word here: weather varies greatly around the world and day to day. Everywhere I have lived in the US, people say, AYou don=t like the weather? Wait 5 minutes.@ We know how difficult it is to predict weather even for the next day.

NASA has published a global map which shows that most of the earth was unusually warm in 2014, except for a few big spots, including the eastern and central US. It was cold here in Illinois and Boston had record-breaking snowfall. A bit more snow fell there this past Friday. But the western states of California, Nevada, Arizona, and Alaska experienced their warmest years ever.

In fact, climate scientists predict that more global warming will lead to even heavier snowfall in Boston and the Northeast. As the surface of the oceans and the atmosphere both warm up, more water vapor can be held in the air. That leads to more rain and snow. Scientists project an increasing number of very heavy precipitation events all across the US, with the greatest increase in New England.

Strangely enough, the same set of global changes might lead to more snow in Boston and worse drought in California. As the Earth warms slowly, the jet stream has shifted, bringing higher temperatures and drier weather in the West and colder, wetter weather in the East. Climate scientists remain uncertain about the effects of global warming on such extreme weather events or on the jet stream itself, but evidence is accumulating behind the idea that warming is the cause.

Because of these seemingly contradictory shifts in weather, the phrase "global warming" is no longer favored by the scientists who study our environment. They now prefer "climate change", which includes the whole variety of changes which are occurring because of a warmer Earth.

Those changes cost money. The Boston area may have lost $1 billion in wages and business profits due the records snows this winter. Our Western states have been suffering under drought conditions for years. Communities are running out of water. If climate scientists’ predictions of an increasing number of extreme weather events are correct, the costs of dealing with them will also jump up.

This is precisely what leads to denial. The temperature measurements for 2014 are distressing to ideologically driven climate change deniers. The Heartland Institute still features on its website the same misleading graphic purporting to show that there has been no warming since 1998. They don’t mention that the people who produced the data behind their chart say that 2014 was the warmest year on record.

The amount of warming seems tiny. NASA estimates that the average global surface temperature has gone up only 1.4 degrees since 1880. Climate change, even if the rise in temperatures is very small, will require concerted effort by our entire society to maintain our high standard of living. That inevitably means government action: reducing greenhouse emissions, shoring up our transportation systems, finding more renewable sources of energy. Global warming denial is the reaction of those who do not want such government action. Instead of proposing alternative ways of dealing with climate change, they simply deny that it is happening at all. The Republicans in Congress, virtually all of whom publically deny that climate change is occurring, have just proposed a budget which cuts or reverses all the programs which might reduce the pace of warming.

One of the clues that the deniers are not to be believed is that they have begun to speak out of both sides of their mouths. Lobbying groups like the Heartland Institute now produce two types of articles: those which claim that global warming is a hoax and those which argue that warming is actually good for us. Tell that to people in Boston, California, and elsewhere, whose lives are already being negatively affected by climate change. Every year, more of us will experience the costs of these changes, unless we begin to change our own habits.

Steve Hochstadt
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 24, 2015

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