Over the past few days the winter storm known as Ion created temperatures below zero in much of the United States, which set a record in many locations. In some locations in northern United States temperatures reached twenty or even thirty below zero – the kind of ranges normally only seen in Alaska. Yesterday the temperature reached a low of -27 in Minneapolis, -16 in Chicago, -4 in St. Louis, and -8 in Indianapolis.
Along with the record low temperatures has come a predictable reigniting of the debate over climate change. Former presidential candidate Donald Trump led the charge by taking to Twitter to argue,
“Record snowfall & freezing temps throughout the country. Where is Global Warming when you need it?!”
The opposite argument is occasionally made by climate change believers during a particularly bad heat wave or drought in the summer. Bad hurricanes and tornadoes are cited as proof of the existence of global warming and climate change, while blizzards and record snowfalls are cited as disproof.
Both sides misunderstand the nature of climate change. The scientists who have documented climate change, and who have attempted to predict its effect, have never predicted that climate change would do away with winters. Furthermore, no credible scientists would say climate change is the sole cause of one storm, or claim that one storm system disproves climate change. Climate change is a gradual phenomenon which occurs over years, decades, and even centuries. It is not proved, or disproved, over a weather spell of days, weeks, or even months.
For the non-climatologists among us, including myself, it may be best to understand climate change in baseball terms. Anyone who watches baseball knows there is a dramatic difference, in terms of effect, between a hitter who bats for .250 average and one who bats for .350 average. A .350 hitter would be one of the best at his position, typically competing for batting title at the Major League Baseball level. A .250 hitter, on the other hand, will usually be a below average hitter, often struggling just to keep his job. Yet, statistically one could argue there is little difference between the two players. The .350 hitter simply gets one more hit every ten at bats than the .250 hitter.
If the .350 hitter garnered no hits over ten or twenty at-bats during a season it would not make him a bad hitter. Instead, his season is measured over how he performs over 500 or more at-bats. In the same way, if a .250 hitter went on crazy hot streak and got 10 hits in 15 at-bats it would not make him an All-Star, instead he is best measured by how he does over the long-term.
In the same way that a blizzard or record low temperatures do not disprove global warming, just one homerun does not make a bad hitter a good hitter, and three strikeouts in a row do not make a good hitter a bad one.
What is true is that a .350 hitter is more likely to get a hit over the long term than the .250 hitter.. In the same way, climate change scientists argue that climate change is more likely, over the long term, to create warmer temperatures with extreme weather effects. This does not mean that every hurricane or tornado can be blamed on climate change, but that hurricanes and tornadoes may be more likely with climate change in the same way that .350 hitter is more likely to hit a triple in given at-bat. At the same time, there will still be winter and extremely cold weeks like the one the United States is suffering right now, just as there times a .350 hitter goes hitless over a few games.
Some scientists even go as far as to argue that climate change could bring about colder weather in the winter. According to this theory, which is not completely agreed upon by scientists, global warming weakens a typically strong jet stream which keeps arctic air masses from coming down and creating the kind of extreme temperatures the United States is currently experiencing. Continuing with our baseball analogy, it would be akin to a power hitter being more prone to striking out because of his violent swing.
Of course, this summary will not end the debate. The next record low or high is sure to bring about the same argument, but perhaps this article convinced a few people - or at least the baseball fans among us.