Archives—January 2014

Why Confusing “Weather” and “Climate” isn’t Funny

[This is a post from Brad Barnett, a Ph.D student in the Environmental and Energy Policy program here at Tech.]

Last week Senator Jim Inhofe (OK-R) took a(nother) public stand against climate change science. From the Senate floor, Inhofe argued the recent polar vortex-induced freeze that affected the United States is proof climate change is a hoax. His rationale: it’s cold outside. Inhofe insisted the wave of frosty weather is evidence that global warming just isn’t happening. If it was, surely we wouldn’t be experiencing such chilling temperatures.

Inhofe is known to be a vocal opponent of climate change science and is often written off by many as another willfully-blind right-winger. His most recent comments were ridiculed because of his oversimplification of a very complex topic and resulted in the creation of the hashtag #InhofeLogic on Twitter (which led to a lot of hilarious tweets). And while much of the online world snickered at Inhofe’s tirade, the senator isn’t alone in confusing weather with long-term climate trends and subsequent opposition to climate change. And that’s no laughing matter.

Senator Inhofe and many other highly visible climate change deniers point to short-term frigid temperatures as evidence that global warming isn’t occurring. This is a fundamental misunderstanding (or misrepresentation) of climate change. The definition of “weather” is simply “the state of the atmosphere at a place and time as regards heat, dryness, sunshine, wind, rain, etc. On the other hand, “climate” refers to “the weather conditions prevailing in an area in general or over a long period.” Climate change scientists point to long term temperature increase trends as proof that the planet is warming. And while the recent polar vortex felt extreme, scientist say these deep freezes are occurring less frequently than they did in the past providing further support of climate change.

Despite the overwhelming consensus among the world’s scientist that climate change is occurring, a portion of the American public just doesn’t believe it’s real. According to an April 2013 study conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, 37% of Americans still don’t believe climate change is happening. Even more concerning, the percentage of Americans that do believe it is occurring decreased by 7% compared to a previous study, and the researchers mostly attributed this to the colder winter of 2012-2013. Scariest of all, less than half of all Americans (49%) believe that climate change (if it’s happening) is caused by human activities.

While it’s certainly a positive sign the majority of Americans believe climate change is real, the decline in public belief coupled with the frigid weather creates a troubling environment for policy makers who support policies to curb climate change. The climate change debate became such a hot topic last week that the White House released a video starring President Obama’s chief science advisor explaining how climate change works. Senate Democrats also publicly announced last week a new task force to advance climate change mitigation policies. What this suggests is that climate change believers on Capitol Hill are concerned that they are losing the battle of public opinion to climate change deniers. Combine this with the growing abundance of cheap shale natural gas accessible by hydraulic fracturing and petroleum from shale rock, climate change and energy policy in the United States is at a crossroads.

Educating the public (and elected officials) on the difference between temporary weather and climate trends would go a long way in removing a critical barrier to strong climate change policy. While it may seem like a very small measure, eliminating this source of confusion may help the public (and some senators) understand that global warming isn’t a joke.