Steve Pendlebury: When Politics and Weather Collide


Richard Moore

A Perfect Storm: When Politics and Weather Collide

Steve Pendlebury

(Dec. 11) — It’s as predictable as the lines of people stocking up on milk, bread and toilet paper when there’s snow in the forecast. Whenever we run a weather story, an argument about global warming breaks out in the comments section of the article. 

It happened again this week as a snowstorm plowed across much of the U.S. while a U.N. climate change conference was going on in Copenhagen. Here’s a sample of readers’ comments about the wintry weather:

Tr00f Detect0r3: So much for Al Gore’s global warming hoax!

RRC55: Never fails. Every time there’s a weather story like this, some idiot has to bring up global warming.

GOLF4NOLE: Actually, Tr00fDetector is right on. Global warming (as Gore knows it) is a hoax. All climatological patterns are cyclical as is everything in nature.

JKanon: I wish all of the deniers here would be capable of realizing the difference between “weather” and “climate.” Any fourth grader knows this. A storm is not climate change.

So who’s right? For answers, we turn to Paul Yeager, a meteorologist and author in currently frigid State College, Pa.

What is the difference between weather and climate?

Climate is almost an average of the weather. … That’s figured out by taking a look at what has happened over the last 100 or 1,000 years and averaging all of the weather extremes and coming up with a baseline of what is normal. Actual weather will vary dramatically from what your climate is.

I look at it as being analogous to how much is in your checking account now versus how much money you’re worth. The weather would be how much you have in your checking account now. If you just paid all the bills, you might feel like you’re really, really poor. But if it’s the day you got paid, you might feel really, really rich. Those are the two extremes and balanced out — how much are you really worth? — it’s somewhere in between. And to get a true accounting of how much you’re worth, you don’t look at just one month of data in your checking account, you look at years’ worth of data. 

Is there any relationship between the weather conditions we experience from day to day and what’s being discussed at the climate conference in Copenhagen?

In the sense that what is going on now cumulatively is a part of what becomes the climate, you can make the argument that there is some relationship. However, to debate any climate decisions based on one individual storm or one individual location would be like basing your financial records on one day of money coming in or money going out. … Not one single weather event is an indication that global warming is occurring or that global warming is not occurring.

Do you think the debate over climate change has become more politicized during the 24 years you’ve been a meteorologist?

Absolutely it has become more politicized. … I think that’s extremely unfortunate because it tends to take the science out of the debate. … Since about 1980 or so the tone of the discussion politically in this country has been to pick a side and agree with it or disagree with it no matter what, as opposed to looking at each individual issue and deciding where you stand. Now that global warming has become an increasing concern — and I do consider it to be a concern; we need to know what’s going on with it — the climate debate has become a very politicized topic.

How do you see your role as a scientist in this debate?

A scientist who goes in trying to prove his theory is not a good scientist. … Any scientist needs to be skeptical. A good scientist is a skeptical scientist. … There are four groups of people who are involved in the global warming debate. I think the one that is naturally skeptical — that looks at the evidence and considers whether it’s good or not based on its own merits as opposed to his personal position on the topic — is making the wise choice. There are people who are deniers of global warming who look at every piece of evidence that shows global warming is not occurring and ignore anything that might show global warming is a possibility or that man might be causing it. And you have the pro-anthropogenic group who will look at any piece of evidence that supports their idea man is influencing the climate and dismiss anything that isn’t and say the science has already been decided. I think both of these groups are scary because they’re not reacting in a truly scientific way. The fourth group of people — and it’s a significantly large group — are those who are apathetic, who just don’t care. And I think it’s too important a topic not to be aware of. 

More: See Local & National Forecast | Paul Yeager Predicts Your Chance of a White Christmas

Paul Yeager writes His book credits include “Weather Whys: Facts, Myths and Oddities” and “Literally, the Best Language Book Ever.”
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