There's a vintage Bob and Ray radio sketch in which Bob plays "Mr. Science," a parody of TV's "Mr. Wizard." He's trying to explain to his young protégé Sandy "the miracle of gas refrigeration."
"Doesn't it seem paradoxical to you that a refrigerator is made cold by a flame?" Mr. Science asks.
Sandy exclaims, "Holy cats! Wait 'til I tell the gang at school that! I thought it was made cold by the ice cubes, Mr. Science!"
Sandy's slippery grasp of physics and Mr. Science's increasingly convoluted explanations characterize the debate over climate change that was taking place in Washington and the media this week. As the capital and much of the Eastern seaboard were digging themselves out from two big snow events, climate change deniers were pointing to the frozen tundra on the Potomac as evidence that global warming is a fraud.
Virginia's Republican Party used the blizzards to put out a snarky ad attacking two of the state's Democratic congressmen who voted for the cap-and-trade bill last year: "Tell them how much global warming you get this weekend," the spot chortled. "Maybe they'll come help you shovel."
Right-wing Senator Jim DeMint sent out a Twitter tweet: "It's going to keep snowing until Al Gore cries 'Uncle!'" And the daughter and grandkids of Republican Senator James Inhofe built a six-foot igloo on Capitol Hill with signs announcing "Al Gore's New Home""and "Honk if you [heart] Global Warming." Once again, the GOP mines comedy gold.
Granted, debating global warming while stuck in a snowdrift can seem a little counterintuitive, especially if you tend to willfully deny scientific evidence and prefer to limit your knowledge of the cold to such things as sticking your tongue on the schoolyard flagpole and enjoying the occasional Sno-Cone. And scientists didn't do themselves any favors when the phrase "global warming was coined. Compared to "climate change," it's much too easy to misinterpret, intentionally or not. (As some have suggested, "global weirding" might be more accurate and helpful.)
In truth, and to get way too basic, warmer air holds more moisture and when temperatures get colder it falls from the sky as a lot of snow. Not to mention that short term weather phenomena, like blizzards, don't necessarily reflect overall climate trends which are measured over decades and more.
And by the way, as the progressive website Media Matters reports, if we can momentarily shift our East Coast-centric eyes from our own icy weather, note that they're having trouble getting enough snow at the Olympics in Vancouver and Rio de Janeiro is wilting from its worst heat wave in half a century.
One big fact that convinces me of the reality of climate change is the seriousness with which America's defense and intelligence agencies are taking it as a worldwide threat. The American Security Project, a Washington think tank, reported last month that the Central Intelligence Agency has relaunched a program "to share surveillance and other data with scientists monitoring climate change." including satellite photos. And in September, the CIA announced it was creating a Center on Climate Change and National Security that will study "the effect environmental factors can have on political, economic, and social stability overseas."
The Chief of Naval Operations has established "Task Force Climate Change" to "assess the Navy's preparedness to respond to emerging requirements, and to develop a science-based timeline for future Navy actions regarding climate change." Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has set the year 2020 as a deadline for the Navy cutting its use of fossil fuels by half.
On February 1, the Pentagon issued its Quadrennial Defense Review, which establishes defense strategy and priorities and evaluates potential international risks. It cites intelligence assessments that
climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation and the further weakening of fragile governments. Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease and may spur or exacerbate mass migration.
While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world.
Among its other findings, the review cites a 2008 National Intelligence Council report that more than 30 U.S. military installations were "already facing elevated levels of risk from rising sea levels. DoD's operational readiness hinges on continued access to land, air, and sea training and test space. Consequently, the department must complete a comprehensive assessment of all installations to assess the potential impacts of climate change on its missions and adapt as required."
So consider yourself warned and, one hopes, suitably chastened. As Sandy tells Mr. Science, "I'm never going to throw an ice cube from a moving car again. Boy, Smokey the Bear's got enough trouble as it is!"
Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program "Bill Moyers Journal," which airs Friday nights on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.