When heat waves scorch cities and heavy rain floods the coasts, climate scientists will point out any plausible connections to global warming, hoping today’s weather will help people understand tomorrow’s danger from climate change.
Then winter comes and those who want to deny the established science that humans are warming the planet will try to flip the script, pointing to the lack of warmth in blizzard conditions.
This is a propagandistic weaponized argument used in weather wars.
As battle lines harden between climate advocates and deniers, both are increasingly using bouts of extreme weather as a weapon to try to win people to their side.
Brad Plumer pointed out this phenomenon in a New York Times article.
“Weather, and especially extreme weather, is how most people will experience climate change,” Director of the science outreach nonprofit group Climate Communication Susan Joy Hassol said.
“You don’t experience the slow change in average temperature,” she said. “What you experience are the changes in extreme weather that are brought about. So how we talk about that is really important.”
One reason that weather can offer a potent messaging opportunity may boil down to human psychology.
Climate science, itself, is often complex and abstract. It can be tough to feel, on a gut level, the implications of a chart showing global temperatures ticking over time, or statistics showing that, on average, 95-degree days or torrential downpours are becoming more frequent.
But an unusual weather event that hits today, like a brutal heat wave or heavy storm, is more visceral.
Laboratory experiments have found that peoples’ beliefs about global warming can be swayed by their immediate environment.
Put someone in a hot room and they’re more likely to agree the planet is warming. Thirsty people become more alarmed by drought forecasts.
Psychologists have suggested these visceral experiences make it easier for our brains to imagine future states of the world, and therefore, make them seem more likely. An exceptionally hot or cold day, other studies have found, can play the same role.
Weather news shows that some of the dramatic changes are taking place in the present.
Los Angeles just experienced the eighth-coldest February since record keeping started over 100 years ago. The month’s average high was 61 degrees and L.A. never reached 70 degrees in the 28-day month.
The average high for the month was 61 degrees, significantly lower than the historical average of 68 for February.
Northern California has been dealing with storms that swell rivers and add to one of the deepest Sierra snowpacks on record.
Gov. Gavin Newsom declared an emergency for the counties of Amador, Glenn, Lake, Mendocino and Sonoma, where hundreds have been marooned because of flooding.
About 2,000 homes, businesses and other structures were flooded by water up to eight-feet deep.
In terms of climate change, the future has arrived already.