Cold Clichés

There may be no greater cliché than talking about the weather.

If there is, it’s complaining about the weather.

And if there’s an even more ubiquitous cliché than that—at least here in the frigid Northeast—it’s bitching about the evident lack of the global warming we were promised.

We’re all familiar with the script.  The calendar turns, the wind blows, the mercury drops, the snow falls and everyone from Washington, D.C., to the Canadian border shouts in unison, “What the hell is going on here?”

That is, except on weekends like the one we just had, in which temperatures rose a solid 10-15 degrees above normal and we were treated to a brief, tantalizing preview of spring.

During which, of course, everyone turned to the unseasonably sunny heavens and shouted, “What the hell is going on here?”

That’s the thing about clichés.  They require no thinking at all.  Indeed, it is in the absence of critical analysis and rational deduction that they fester and thrive.

It would not seem a terribly arduous undertaking to grasp that some days are warmer or colder than others, that winter equals snow and summer equals heat, and that whatever Mother Nature happens to deliver on one day in one neighborhood is not necessarily representative of the entirety of planet Earth.

And yet we talk about inclement weather as if it’s as mysterious as in the days preceding all modern meteorology and climate science, because, well, what else are we gonna talk about?  Rain and snow bring us together as a people—they are concepts we can all relate to, because they affect each of us in one way or another.

The point at which this becomes a real problem, however, is when this meteorological griping reaches epidemic levels and is shown to be in direct conflict with the actual truth of the matter, leading large groups of people to believe something that just ain’t so.  Such as the belief, in this case, that climate change isn’t real.

From a crucial recent story in the New York Times, titled, “Freezing January for Easterners Was Not Felt Round the World,” we learn that for all the snow and cold spells the Acela Corridor has experienced, this winter isn’t even close to the Biblical anomaly most people assume it to be.

In my hometown of Boston, for instance, last month registered as the 29th coldest January in the past 95 years.  In New York City, it was the 23rd coldest in the same period.

Nationwide, according to the Times, the mean temperature last month was, in fact, below the historical average over the past century.  By one-tenth of one degree Fahrenheit.

Meanwhile, a far more germane (and alarming) statistic concerns the Earth as a whole, for which this January was the fourth-warmest—yes, warmest—on record.

While this might surprise those in the Eastern U.S., folks in the West likely feel the opposite, since states there have faced temperatures that really are extreme—that is, extremely warm.  Parts of California have suffered a crippling drought stretching back several years, while otherwise tundra-like Alaska has been outright balmy, with temperatures regularly besting those of locales several thousand miles to the south.

What’s really going on here—that was our original question, wasn’t it?—is explained in an equally crucial New York Times piece, “Freezing Out the Bigger Picture,” by science writer Justin Gillis, who tersely notes, “Scientists refer to global warming because it is about, well, the globe.  It is also about the long run.  It is really not about what happened yesterday in Poughkeepsie.”

As Gillis goes on to write, we amateur meteorologists tend to refer to “weather” and “climate” as if they are the same thing, which they most decidedly are not.  The effects and the consequences of climate change can only be properly assessed and appreciated by examining the Big Picture, which necessitates tempering the narcissism and ignorance that come with viewing your own local habitat as a representative sample for a few hundred years’ worth of observation and research.

Once you do that, you realize the term “global warming” has always been a misnomer, since the ecological mayhem to which we humans have subjected our home planet has taken far more complicated forms than merely making everything a little bit hotter.

Climate change, or whatever you wish to call it, is a problem of extreme conditions of every imaginable sort—not simply extreme heat or extreme cold.

As such, if we insist on carrying on about local weather patterns being not quite what we had in mind, let us cease acting as if they bear any immediate relevance to the broader trends of the wider world, lest we make ourselves look like complete idiots.

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