Well, not really. But there has definitely been a shift in public perception since last summer. As I was watching my local news this morning, the anchor alluded to global warming as a way of “explaining” the record setting heat wave currently stifling most of the country. Of course, the science linking greenhouse gases to a hot week of weather is tenuous at best. Nevertheless, people are now using the scientific consensus on climate change as a means of understanding their local forecast.
This is both good and bad news. On the one hand, it demonstrates that global warming has hit the big time, and now looms large in the public consciousness. The history of environmentalism demonstrates that meaningful action is only taken once the public is riled up, as recently occurred with CFC’s and the hole in the ozone.
On the other hand, it’s always dangerous when a subtle scientific story of causation gets applied to every meteorological blip. I worry that the weather is especially vulnerable to such fallacious explanations. After all, it’s a natural human instinct to want to know why something happens, even if the why is beyond our reach. This current heat wave is just as likely to have been caused by a butterfly flapping it’s wings in Tokyo as by increased emissions of carbon dioxide. If the public gets into the bad habit of using global warming as way of making sense of specific weather patterns, I worry what will happen when we have a rough winter, or are blessed with a shortage of hurricanes. It’s important for people to understand that global warming is a statistical story, and that statistical correlations cannot be accurately applied to every little observation. While the earth as a whole is getting warmer, that warming trend doesn’t explain my local weather.