TCS Daily

Cold Comfort

By Nick Schulz - January 24, 2003 12:00 AM

Does a frigid January mean the threat of climate change is over? As the headline on the front of Wednesday's New York Daily News put it "Global Warming, Huh?"

In the northeast and parts of the midwest, the temperature has not risen above freezing since January 14. It's gotten so cold, the crime rate is down in New York City - it's apparently too cold to burgle. Meteorologists expect the cold front to last into next week.

But low temperatures this winter don't disprove the global-warming theory any more than warm temperatures last summer confirm it. Despite this, we often hear from some scientists, the media, and politicians how the 20th century was the warmest on record and how greenhouse gases - in particular those caused by human use of fossil fuels - are contributing to a catastrophic global warming.

"The evidence of global warming keeps piling up, month after month, week after week," said Vice President Al Gore, back in the hot summer of 1998. "How long is it going to take before these people in the Congress get the message? People are sweltering out here."

And just last summer, Europe was hit with bad flooding and the Danube spilled over its banks. Rather than blame a fickle Mother Nature, some chose to blame mankind. "This [flooding] definitely has to do with global warming. We must change something now. Those nations that really are careless with the environment should have to compensate," said Gallus Cadonau of the Swiss Greina Foundation.

And when human beings aren't causing floods, they're apparently causing droughts. "This is the first drought... where the impact of human-induced global warming can be clearly seen," David Karoly, a former professor of meteorology at Australia's Monash University said two weeks ago.

All of these assertions are cold comfort to people in many parts of the world experiencing one of the worst freezing spells in recent memory.

"London was blanketed under more snow than it has seen in 11 years... Freezing conditions enveloped the country," the Independent reported this month. "The whole northern hemisphere, from Florida to Finland, Germany to Japan, was in the grip of a cold snap that seemed more in line with a new Ice Age," the Daily Telegraph revealed last week.

"As a monthlong cold wave hammers parts of India, Bangladesh and Nepal, it is the poor who fare the worst in the daily fight against dropping temperatures," the AP reported. The cold is already responsible for over 100 deaths in Bangladesh.

So what's going on? For starters, there's a lot of what climate scientists call "natural variability" at work. That's a fancy way of saying that climate has always changed and will continue to change on its own over time - despite the inputs and influences of volcanic eruptions or the sun or human-made greenhouse gases. This makes it difficult to predict what will happen in the future or to ascertain precisely what factors - such as greenhouse gases - will influence global climate and in what way.

Dr. John Christy of the Department of Atmospheric Science and Earth System Science Laboratory at the University of Alabama in Huntsville points out that "in the southeastern U.S., we've had declining temperatures over the past 110 years. Would this be evidence that human impacts are causing the temperature to fall?"

Of course not. Just as the current cold spell isn't proof that global warming isn't happening. But neither is a flood, a drought, a melting glacier, or a hot summer where "people are sweltering" proof that global warming is happening.

The currently available climate science tells us that a lot of healthy skepticism is in order anytime anyone says recent weather conditions and climate changes point to global warming. In the mean time, good news could be on the horizon for the shivering masses around the world. Britain's Meteorological Office warned less than a month ago that 2003 is set to become the hottest year on record. If the Office turns out to be correct, just don't call it global warming.

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