Oh boy, it was a real scorcher in our nation’s capital today… at least by April standards! With temperatures in some locales surpassing 90 degrees, several area daily high temperature records were broken.
As I sweated through the day, I got to thinking: where are all of those oh-so-clever political cartoonists and global-warming-denying Republican politicians who just a couple of months ago were incessantly using February’s record-breaking snows to “mock” the idea of global warming?
(Bueller…? Bueller…? Bueller…?)
The fact is that this is largely an irrelevant*** question (well, irrelevant in terms of science; politically, we should seriously be questioning the integrity and competence of these people). As anyone with a grade-school education should be able to tell you, climate and weather are two distinct concepts. Weather deals with events on the timescale of hours and days, whereas climate concerns averages on the scale of years. Although day-to-day weather can be erratic and somewhat unpredictable, the average global temperature has been increasing at a fairly steady rate for many years now (i.e. global warming), and this change has accelerated recently. There is very strong evidence that this warming is due to the actions of humankind.
Although the behavior we saw back in February was just political theater on behalf of opportunistic Republicans, one might be somewhat surprised to learn that some of those we might–superficially–expect to be experts on our changing climate, meteorologists, are particularly skeptical about global warming. This is something I have observed personally, and Leslie Kaufman of The New York Times recently had an interesting article about this phenomenon–and why this shouldn’t be taken as strong evidence against global warming:
But it has also created tensions between two groups that might be expected to agree on the issue: climate scientists and meteorologists, especially those who serve as television weather forecasters.
Such skepticism appears to be widespread among TV forecasters, about half of whom have a degree in meteorology. A study released on Monday by researchers at George Mason University and the University of Texas at Austin found that only about half of the 571 television weathercasters surveyed believed that global warming was occurring and fewer than a third believed that climate change was “caused mostly by human activities.”
More than a quarter of the weathercasters in the survey agreed with the statement “Global warming is a scam,” the researchers found.
The split between climate scientists and meteorologists is gaining attention in political and academic circles because polls show that public skepticism about global warming is increasing, and weather forecasters — especially those on television — dominate communications channels to the public. A study released this year by researchers at Yale and George Mason found that 56 percent of Americans trusted weathercasters to tell them about global warming far more than they trusted other news media or public figures like former Vice President Al Gore or Sarah Palin, the former vice-presidential candidate.
The reasons behind the divergence in views are complex. The American Meteorological Society, which confers its coveted seal of approval on qualified weather forecasters, has affirmed the conclusion of the United Nations’ climate panel that warming is occurring and that human activities are very likely the cause. In a statement sent to Congress in 2009, the meteorological society warned that the buildup of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would lead to “major negative consequences.”
Yet, climate scientists use very different scientific methods from the meteorologists. Heidi Cullen, a climatologist who straddled the two worlds when she worked at the Weather Channel, noted that meteorologists used models that were intensely sensitive to small changes in the atmosphere but had little accuracy more than seven days out. Dr. Cullen said meteorologists are often dubious about the work of climate scientists, who use complex models to estimate the effects of climate trends decades in the future.
But the cynicism, said Dr. Cullen, who now works for Climate Central, a nonprofit group that works to bring the science of climate change to the public, is in her opinion unwarranted.
“They are not trying to predict the weather for 2050, just generally say that it will be hotter,” Dr. Cullen said of climatologists. “And just like I can predict August will be warmer than January, I can predict that.”
Resentment may also play a role in the divide. Climatologists are almost always affiliated with universities or research institutions where a doctoral degree is required. Most meteorologists, however, can get jobs as weather forecasters with a college degree.
Thomas Lin has an additional blog post at The New York Times’ Dot Earth blog chronicling why this climatologist/meteorologist divide is so dangerous: the outsized influence over public opinion that TV weathermen wield from their very visible platforms.
Interestingly, I also received a surprisingly timely press release today on this very topic from the Union of Concerned Scientists–regarding tonight’s episode of The Colbert Report:
UCS Climate Scientist, Dr. Brenda Ekwurzel will go head to head with a skeptical meteorologist during “couples counseling” tonight on the Colbert Report. It should be funny and informative. We hope you tune in, tonight, April 6 on Comedy Central at 11:30 p.m. EDT.
Both sciences are indeed “married” through their focus on the atmosphere, but they differ when it comes to identifying short-term trends, such as storms, versus long-term trends, such as human-induced climate change. Brenda will set the record straight: Global warming is real and its consequences are becoming increasingly apparent as sea levels rise, glaciers melt, and extreme weather events become more prevalent.
I imagine it will be entertaining as usual!
***In addition to the political caveat above, one could also make the case that the recent weather may not be totally irrelevant scientifically to discussions of global warming, as increases in global temperature are expected to also increase the frequency of extreme weather events (as noted with less measured language in the press release). However, no single weather event can be attributed directly to global warming with absolute certainty, so this is a point that should only be made cautiously.