Tuesday, February 16, 2010

When global cooling is only in your backyard

Global warming seems to be obvious just about everywhere - except where the most important decision-makers live. When November's climate data came out, I commented that Sarah Palin must be confused because she could see global cooling from her house. Similarly, record snowstorms in a few parts of the country are giving boorish politicians ample opportunity to grandstand over the end of global warming.

Nevermind that snow is not indicative of cold weather (here and here). To see that weather is not the same as climate, all you have to do is look past your own backyard:

Yes, that's right: while snow has buried Washington, DC, snow must be airlifted in to the Winter Olympics due to record high temperatures. I know, I know, it's hard to believe, but it's true: the weather you experience in your day-to-day life is not necessarily being experienced in other places around the world.

The point is not to say that Vancouver's predicament is proof of global warming - my point is simply that by ignoring an opposite extreme weather event that's happening simultaneously to the East Coast snowstorms, deniers reveal the narrowness of their worldview (or extent of their deception). By any objective measure of unusualness and human interest, "no snow at Winter Olympics due to high temperatures" is at least as newsworthy a headline as "more snow than usual falls on East Coast," so the fact that deniers highlight only the latter while ignoring the former is telling.

In any case, there's still the larger point: despite record snowfalls in a few small locations, the vast majority of the globe is still experiencing uninterrupted warming. In fact, January 2010 was the warmest on record, even according to the satellite dataset deniers trust most. Anyone who points to extreme snowfall in a few locations as proof that global warming has ended is either exceedingly stupid, or exceedingly lying.

(Source for the airlift photo: http://www.usatoday.com/sports/olympics/vancouver/2010-02-08-weather-concerns_N.htm; h/t Joe Romm)


Global cooling at Sarah Palin's house


  1. I have to shake my head every time I hear about people making claims about climate change based on the record snows in D.C.

    I used the following analogy to explain the situation to someone I heard talking about the issue.

    Imagine the NCAA was considering changing to a new material for basketballs and they wanted to test if the new ball had a signifigant effect on shooting percentages. To acomplish this, the NCAA gathered together 100 players who all averaged 90% at the free throw line for their careers. For the test, each player shot two free throws. When the NCAA looked at the results they saw that one player who usually shot 90% missed both free throws and concluded the ball must be bad.

    While the analogy is not perfect, it illustrates the major flaws in climate change denier arguments. First, the test itself is terribly flawed because it gathers such a small amount of data. This paralells deniers focus on a tiny time window. Second, even using a flawed test, the results themselves are not out of the realm of expectation, given a nearly 2/3's chance that at least one player who shoots 90% will brick both shots if 100 are tested, yet the NCAA focuses on the one seeming aberation to reject the ball. Here the paralell is the focus on one or two seemingly cold points to "disprove" a GLOBAL theory.

    The analogy is a bit complicated for the statistically uninitiated, but its pretty easy to see why the NCAA's conclusions are flawed even if you aren't a math expert.

  2. and the deniers are even worse than that. It's not just small sample size - but in fact, warmer temperatures do lead to worse snowstorms, since warmer air holds more moisture.

    I'm trying to think of a basketball analogy...