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Richard Stuebi

Richard Stuebi

Posted February 16, 2009 | 12:28 PM (EST)

Weather Does Not Equal Climate


For most of us in the Eastern U.S., January was a really tough month to endure. In Cleveland, it was almost ceaselessly cloudy, snowy and cold. It was really easy to get into a funk.

So, I have an iota of sympathy for Kevin O'Brien, a columnist in The Plain-Dealer, in regards to his February 5th editorial "Another Disappointing Year for Global Warming Hopefuls".

You see, I too was grumpy, and I too was damn tired of the bitter weather. As O'Brien rightly notes, it was the second-snowiest on record for Cleveland. According to National Weather Service data for Cleveland for the month of January, there were two stretches of at least seven days when the temperature didn't rise above freezing, and twelve morning lows below 10F. Thus, at one level, O'Brien's rant was somewhat understandable.

But I can't cut O'Brien much slack. Unlike O'Brien and others in the blogosphere (such as this February 4 oped in the Washington Times by Deroy Murdock entitled "Warming Up the Laughs"), I don't wildly extrapolate from one month's worth of weather to claim not only that climate change is bunk, but that the "global warming panic machine is quite detectably losing steam" or that "both troglodyte right-wingers and lachrymose left-wingers find Albert Gore's simmering planet hypothesis increasingly hilarious."

I concede that Al Gore and others have been guilty at times of overpromoting the cause: being a bit too flippant in describing the state of climate science as bullet-proof, and a bit too hyperbolic in suggesting impending ecological disasters as certain and imminent.

That being said, that doesn't mean that Gore et al don't have the story directionally-correct.

If you strip away the hype and review the sober assessments of the vast majority of highly-clinical climate experts who have weighed the enormous body of scientific evidence, there is little doubt remaining that human-induced climate change almost certainly is actually occurring, with the net effect of driving a trend of higher average temperatures across the planet. Legitimate questions certainly do remain about pace and impact, but the basic phenomenon is within the realm of little doubt. All one has to do is spend a few minutes reading the work, and the bona-fides, of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to get pretty comfortable with that conclusion.

For the skeptic crowd including O'Brien and Murdock, there seems to be one misapprehension that tends to underlie their often-angry dismissals of the entire climate change movement. It is a simple logical defect, no doubt stemming from a poor understanding of statistical principles, leading such critics to completely ignore (when convenient to do so) the difference between the concept of weather and the concept of climate.

I've been thinking up an analogy that better illustrates the distinction between weather and climate to deniers who pooh-pooh climate change on the basis of one cold month such as January 2009 in the Eastern U.S. I've been working on telling the following story, one that's a little more accessible for the typical layman (and this interview with Professor Daniel Esty of Yale University discusses polling data indicating that many fewer men than women are concerned about climate change):

Consider the 1998 New York Yankees, clearly one of the best teams in baseball history, with an astounding final regular season record of 114-48, and a post-season record of 11-2, culminating in a four-game sweep of the San Diego Padres in the World Series.

As great as this team proved itself over the course of a very long season, there were several multi-game stretches in which these 1998 Yankees compiled losing records. For instance, from August 19 to September 21 -- more than a whole month -- the Yankees were downright mediocre, with a record of 14 -18. From almost any vantage-point within that stretch, and only considering the games during that stretch, it would be easy for an observer to declare that group of Yankees a so-so team. However, over the much broader season, the verdict is unambiguously and incontestably the opposite: that the 1998 Yankees were an outstanding team.

Weather is to climate what one pitch is to an entire baseball season: an instantaneous reading of conditions, an infinitesimal snapshot, in the midst of something incredibly larger and broader.

Sure, we can have a record cold day, week or month - while at the same time being in the midst of a long-term upward trend of temperatures. This doesn't seem so hard to understand, really.

(By the way, many believers of climate change are often guilty of snidely commenting about a brutally hot summer day by saying something like "Enjoying the climate change?" while wearing a knowing grin. These are cheap shots that I wish would cease, because they too are inappropriate extrapolations from a small-sample, just like the practice I'm decrying above.)

Not only is climate an assimilation over time of local weather conditions, it is also an assimilation across geography of weather conditions. For instance, while those of us in Cleveland and the Eastern U.S. were shivering in January, places elsewhere like Southern California experienced the warmest January on record, as documented in this article. If Kevin O'Brien had spent January in Los Angeles instead of Cleveland, maybe he wouldn't have written the same essay. (Well, he probably would have just waited for the next cold snap to trot out his faulty arguments: O'Brien tends to retread this "global warming is nonsense" column every time Cleveland experiences a longish spell of below-average temperatures.)

From a mathematical standpoint, one can intellectually consider the concept of climate as essentially the integral of weather over time and over space. Alas, I suspect that many of those who don't believe in climate change are probably not too well-versed in the principles of calculus.

Ultimately, I feel sorry for the most strident climate change deniers. People who speak with a conviction masking their lack of understanding often do so from an entrenched position of fear and ignorance, which is a terrible way to live.

As for the pitiful O'Brien, I thought about writing a letter to The Plain-Dealer in response to his February 5th oped, but I doubted that the editors - worried about reader attention span and comprehension - would print something of sufficient length and depth to present a reasoned argument.

So, I wrote this piece, but as a concession to brevity, I'll close by stating something simple, in the hope that he and others of his ilk will soon get it: "Weather does not equal climate."