The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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Cold

I’ve been cold all week. In fact, I’ve been cold and dirty, because I’ve been wearing all the warm clothes I have constantly and can’t bear to take them off long enough to wash them. I plan to buy a set of long underwear tomorrow and then do the laundry.

Of course–and I’m paraphrasing Stephen Colbert, here–me being cold doesn’t invalidate climate change any more than me being well-fed invalidates world hunger. It’s hard to even be sure this isn’t a normal, or even an abnormally warm, spring in coastal Maine, as I wrote last week.

But I talked to my friend (and go-to authority on most subjects), Tom Wessels, and he said this area IS running about a week late, and was running at least two weeks late back in April. Further, he says that late springs are the new normal around here, not in spite of climate change, but because of it.

A Cold Kind of Warming

Most of us are probably familiar by now with the idea that global warming is a trend and that individual cold snaps can still happen. Further, “climate change” is a more accurate name for the phenomenon, because warming isn’t the only thing happening. Some areas get wetter, others drier, and perhaps some areas get colder, although the global average temperature is still going up.

But all that is still an oversimplification.

Coastal Maine is not a local spot of paradoxical cooling, nor is this year anomalously chilly. Talking to locals, I learn that winter weather came late, and never got very cold, often warming up enough to rain. Then the rain and slush would freeze, adding another layer of ice to sheets already slick, thick, and vast. It’s just that the spring got a late start. In fact, since we seem to be catching up to normal, spring must be proceeding a little faster than it used to. I don’t know whether this later, faster spring is really a facet of climate change as Tom says–I trust his expertise, but I don’t know whether he really knows or is simply making an educated guess. But it’s certainly possible.

Because this is a big planet with a complex climate, and any simple explanation is likely to be more or less wrong. The world is getting warmer, but that doesn’t tell us what’s happening with storm tracks and front movements and different facets of the system that can vary with respect to each other, decoupling phenomena we thought were inextricably linked.

It’s not that nobody knows what’s going on, it’s that what’s going on is subtle, intricate, and pervasive.

The Moral of the Story?

While most of us have to simplify things to wrap our heads around them, such simplifications introduce error and make some things that are actually true, like coastal Maine’s new spring, seem bizarre and counter-intuitive. The moral of the story, if there is one, is not to put too much faith in the fables we tell ourselves to get through the day.

There are people who spend their entire lives studying climate change for a reason–it’s a difficult puzzle that takes a lot of work. When they tell us what they know, based on those hours and years spent tackling a puzzle most of us don’t have time for, we should believe them.