Scientific consensus has been warning us for years that climate change is real. But the mountain of scientific evidence wasn’t enough on its own for the issue to penetrate mainstream debate. For some to be convinced of the coming environmental threats, they needed to feel the heat. Literally.
So with freakishly warm temperatures over the last year, many pundits are now increasingly alarmed over the fate of the planet.
Tom Friedman lamented the daffodils growing off-season in his garden. “Don’t know about you, but when I see things in nature that I have never seen before in my life, like daffodils blooming in January, it starts to feel creepy,” he wrote in the New York Times. Even Pat Robertson started to care during the excessive heat of last summer. “I have not been one to believe in global warming,” he said on a broadcast of The 700 Club in August. “But I tell you, [the blistering summers] are making a convert out of me.”
While it is clearly good news that attention, long overdue, is being given to the fact that humans are causing climate change, it is dangerous to use an unseasonably warm winter as evidence of the problem. The reason is simple: The current weather is one of the least compelling bits of evidence for climate change and, in fact, may not be evidence at all.
“Seeing one event–a heat wave in December in Washington or a cold snap in January in Washington–and from that arguing that global warming is or isn’t real is not good science,” said Richard Alley, one of the authors of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, in an e-mail to The Nation.
Wycliffe Muga, who covers environmental issues for the BBC and Kenya’s Daily Nation, said in an interview that recent warm weather “is purely incidental.”
“Studies on global warming indicate that the change in temperature will be very gradual,” said Muga. “A not-so-cold winter does not mean much.”
Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service, recently told the Washington Post that the unusually warm weather is not a byproduct of global warming but of El Niño. In the same article Alley said, “It’s very dangerous to blame climate for weather.”
It may also prove to be counterproductive. Imagine if next winter the Northeast is hit with an average snowfall and typically cold temperatures. Will Pat Robertson and his followers be convinced that God has saved us from global warming? Will Tom Friedman’s readers take a deep breath knowing there is no strange vegetation in the columnist’s garden? Will people still take seriously the coming problems or the urgency with which the world needs to act?