Warming and Winter Storming

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It’s a typical blog comment for this time of year. “I hope,” wrote one of my ‘skeptic’ readers, “the folks in the NE USA and Europe didn’t hurt their backs when shoveling all that global warming.” 

Har har.

This common insinuation–that somehow, human-caused climate change is refuted by the perennial occurrence of bad winter weather–puts us scientific rationalists in a bind. The problem is that unlike many denier talking points, there isn’t really even an argument being put forward here that might be refuted. It’s more of a “nyah nyah,” followed by, “I  never believed you to begin with, but this time of year, I just feel sorry for you.”  

I mean, sure, we can reply by pointing out the distinction between climate and weather. We can further explain why global warming can actually mean more snow because warmer air holds more moisture–something a few brave souls attempt to get across each winter.

Most recently, Judah Cohen, a forecaster at a firm called Atmospheric and Environmental Research, penned a New York Times oped attempting to explain our recent bouts of severe winter weather against the backdrop of a general warming trend. According to Cohen, global warming is leading to more moisture buildup, and more snow dumpage, over Siberia. In turn, the Siberian continent’s snow cover is messing with the jet stream…etc etc. And we have extremely white Christmases.

It’s a plausible idea, certainly, but not something that all scientists are buying at this point.

But explaining why global warming and big snowfalls can go together is hardly an adequate response to winter climate denial. We’ve made the right intellectual arguments, sure—but the creature we’re wrestling with here isn’t really responsive to them.

To truly understand why climate denial is strengthened in winter, we need to dig deeper into the psychological factors that seem to be at play here. So here’s a stab—based on my reading the new booklet, The Psychology of Climate Change Communication, from the folks at the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) at Columbia University.

According to CRED, we all use “mental models” as a kind of shorthand to help us apply what we think we know about the world to new situations. The models steer us towards useful answers quickly and without requiring much work–using past assumptions to guide future decisions and letting us rapidly determine what’s going on and what we think.

To that end, mental models also help us filter information and determine what to pay attention to. This can lead “confirmation bias,” in which we only pay attention to information that seems to confirm what we believe anyway and ignore or discount contradictory information.

Well. One powerful mental model out there when it comes to weather is the notion that it’s nothing but change, change, change. Weather is quirky, capricious, variable. It strands you at airports. It rains out soccer games.

If this model is dominant in your head, and you don’t know much climate science and aren’t spending time focusing on it, you’ll be inclined to discount global warming regardless of politics. Because global warming, after all, suggests there’s a pattern behind all the craziness–a pattern that’s extremely hard for the average person to discern and that does not adhere to the mental model.

Now add to that dramatic winter weather, people stranded at airports across the northeast, the snowy collapse of the Metrodome roof—and wow. Without thinking too deeply, and only being influenced by the most salient information available—i.e., vivid news reports about winter weather havoc–mental shortcuts will surely lead many people you to scoff at the idea of global warming.

How ridiculous, they’ll say. Look at all these snow catastrophes.

If something like this mental cascade is happening in a widespread way every winter–and I believe that it is–then we have a truly uphill battle trying to get anyone to take climate change seriously during at least one season of every year. So what’s the answer?

That would require a much longer piece, but I certainly know what the answer isn’t: Holding pivotally important climate change meetings in December in Denmark.

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