Taking the Fringe to School

If you’ve wandered over to the fringe in the past few weeks, you might have noticed the “it’s cold outside, global warming must be over” meme running wild as the U.S. enters…winter. I, for one, learned the difference between “climate” and “weather” in grade school. Apparently some need a refresher.

From this primer (pdf):

When you watch the weatherman on TV, you often hear about the highs and lows of the day, humidity levels and precipitation. But sometimes on TV you also see advertisements for places to vacation claiming that their location has a hot and sunny beach climate or a cold and snowy location that is great for skiing. If climate and weather both describe temperature and precipitation, what is the difference?

Weather is “the conditions in the atmosphere in a certain place during a certain time. Weather is always changing [emphasis mine].”

Climate is “what the weather is generally like over long periods of time, such as years or decades in a particular area. A place that has little rainfall has a dry climate, and a place that has high temperatures has a hot climate.”

Climate, obviously, is what the scientific community is worried about. And I mean “scientific community” literally. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed in 1988, and, ever since then, they’ve published periodic reports that represent the consensus view of thousands of climate scientists.  These are some of the most peer-reviewed papers in scientific history. Everyone in their right mind believes these reports. In fact, they receive a lot of flack for being too conservative, as they tend to be quite cautious in their findings and predictions (as scientists are wont to be).  

The most recent IPCC report came to these conclusions:

  1. Warming of the climate system is unequivocal
  2. Observational evidence from all continents and most oceans shows that many natural systems are being affected by regional climate changes, particularly temperature increases.
  3. Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations.
  4. There is high agreement and much evidence that with current climate change mitigation policies and related sustainable development practices, global GHG emissions will continue to grow over the next few decades.

I can understand all this because the “scientific method” is also something I learned about in grade school.  In short, the last IPCC report signals that the scientific debate is over and has been for quite a while. We have changed our planet, and that change will have dire consequences. 

This may all sound like a big laugh, but the truth is that the small, but vocal, fringe that points to minute fluctuations as being proof of a global trend is being terribly callous and irresponsible.  We are already beginning to see the consequences of a lack of action — rising sea levels, droughts, increased storm activity. The list goes on.  We can’t yet say with 100 percent certainty that these are a direct result of increased global temperatures, but we do know for sure that we’ll be seeing more of the same in the future if we don’t turn the corner. People will die because of something that these people are using as a yuk-yuk one liner. And, if you don’t care about that, it will devastate the world economy, as the Stern Review makes plain.

The meeting in Copenhagen showed us how delicate crafting a global agreement will be.  To attempt to break down political will with unlearned sniping is too much.  I’m going to turn the channel. You should too.