Sunday, February 14, 2010

Strange winter, cool summer, and climate change

It's been a weird winter in the eastern USA - after getting some heavy snow back in December, the heavy snows seem to have largely ignored the far northeastern states for the past month and a half, and have totally clobbered places further south, like Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C, while cold weather has made much of the southeast little warmer than the northeast. Here we have had a pretty cold but dry winter with less than average snowfall after the beginning of January. The real weirdness for us was actually last summer, which was one of the coolest and wettest on record. This brings up a problem for many people - if the world is supposed to be getting warmer, why are we getting abnormally cool summers and winters with heavy snows falling much further south than usual? Before anyone panics, yes, I do know that short-term weather doesn't always correspond with long-term climate change, and that even if the whole planet gets much warmer, some spots will actually get colder at certain times of year. I don't think that most people think about weather and climate in that way, though. Farmers and other people whose work and livelihood is heavily impacted by seasons and long-term climate as well as short-term weather might take a longer view, but I think that your average city or suburb dweller doesn't remember or think as much about long-term changes in weather patterns. This is an entirely subjective judgment on my part, and I might be totally wrong (that certainly has been known to happen!), but it seems to me that quite a few people will see a cool summer and heavy snowstorms further south than usual, and think "Global warming, my ass! More like a new ice age coming - those so-called experts don't have any idea what they are talking about."
To be honest, that's my gut reaction, a reaction that gets neutralized by what I've read about global warming and climate change, but still lurks in the back of my mind, waiting for another chance.

It's not surprising that a lot of people in the USA disbelieve in global warming/climate change. One thing that I think distinguishes popular attitudes in the USA from those in many other countries is that historically Americans have a strong streak of distrusting "the experts". This is sometimes called anti-intellectualism, but I think that it would actually be more accurate to call it "anti-expertism". The idea is that experts in various fields are really a self-appointed elite who don't know much more than ordinary people do, but who pretend that they do in order to justify a privileged position for themselves and control over the lives of others. This concept is often closely connected to fear of strong government, a classic theme of US history that always comes back to center stage even after it sometimes fades into the background for a while. Not surprisingly, anti-expert feelings are usually especially strong when the experts are telling people unpleasant news, like that people will have to make major changes in their lifestyles or face climate changes big enough to negatively impact all of human civilization - or that they will face these climate changes even after they make major changes to their lifestyles. Anti-expert beliefs are strong enough for many Americans that they will see anything that seems to contradict the "experts", even if it is not scientifically valid, as proof positive that the experts are "full of it".

Unfortunately, recent weather patterns in the eastern US don't exactly make global warming look plausible to large numbers of people who are inclined to be highly critical of the whole idea in the first place.

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