Another Big Storm Cripples Cities, Travel—and Reason

The political patter during blizzards is predictable, but it doesn't change the science

NOAA's GOES-East satellite captured the center of the developing Nor'easter located off North Carolina's Outer Banks on Jan. 26.

NASA/NOAA Goes Project

Forecasters are projecting "crippling snowfall amounts and life-threatening blizzard conditions" throughout the Northeast. They may as well toss in a 100 percent likelihood of jokes from American conservative media about how snow invalidates the idea of global warming. 

Cue headlines, such as these early hits from the Drudge Report, about the "’Snowiest decade’ on record…," with a link to the conservative website Climate Depot. Or this FLASHBACK NYT: ‘The end of snow?’ headline, which points with irony to a New York Times piece from February about what warming is doing to winter sports. The strategy here, which has been effective for years, is to sow confusion by pointing out superficial contradictions within a complex topic.

As a reminder, snow does not invalidate or contradict anything. The most authoritative body of climate scientists reinforced in late 2013 that global warming is "unequivocal" and it's at least 95 percent likely that human emissions are "the dominant cause." That's about as close as scientists come, philosophically, to certainty. A warmer atmosphere evaporates more water vapor into the air, which tumbles right back down in supersize, if less frequent, snow storms when the temperature dips below freezing. Expect to see more of that, according to an MIT study published in the journal Nature in August.

The political patter during blizzards has long been predictable. Here's what's interesting these days. As climate science becomes more confident, it may be making the U.S.'s weird strain of climate contrariness less viable. The tide is turning for American conservatives when it comes to climate change, a trend encouraged most vividly by extreme weather events, such as California's relentless drought, the Colorado floods of 2013, or Hurricane Sandy. Or less frequent and more powerful winter storms. 

Most moderate Republicans -- 62 percent -- understand that global warming is happening, according to a poll this month from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, which conducts research on American public opinion. An even higher percentage of Republicans said they support carbon dioxide as a climate pollutant. Sixty-two percent of moderate Republicans agreed to strict limits on emissions from coal-fired power plants. 

So if the scientists are confident, and rational people (including the world's largest businesses) understand the stakes, then the impediment to productive U.S. public and policy discussion must be, by process of elimination, elected leadership. If enough people really think what the Yale numbers suggest, then we may yet see elected leadership that, at a minimum, acknowledge things that are known to be true. The United States is basically one reasonable climate speech by a Republican presidential candidate away from joining the community of nations that take this topic seriously.

It very well may be that conservative leadership in Washington and in media will continue to poke fun at warming and winter. But as public opinion catches up with well-documented science, more and more Americans are understanding that this is -- oof -- snow joke.

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