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What If This Summer Isn't the 'New Normal'?

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorAugust 3, 2012 9:15 PM


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If you follow climate-concerned bloggers and tweeters, as I do, you probably have noticed there is frequent mention of weather that implies a connection to climate change. Otherwise, what's the point, right? By way of example, browse Bill McKibben's tweets. He's become a dutiful chronicler of weather-related bad news. If you want to know that a bridge in Oklahoma buckled from the heat, or that rainfall in India's grainbelt is 70 percent below average this year, he's your man. This obsession doesn't seem like a healthy habit; it's as if he strapped himself down, Clockwork Orange style, to a continuous feed of weather news from all over the world. But he's hardly alone. Other climate writers diligently track the latest storm front to move in over New York City and the heat index in parched regions of the Midwest. Let it be said: Today is a good time to be a weather nerd. The heat waves and drought baking much of the United States this summer provides terrific fodder for climate activists and the environmental media. It's also got more people thinking about global warming, which climate activists have taken note of. They want to cement the impression that all our ugly summer weather is connected to climate change--or a harbinger of what's to come--so they continue to play up all the record-breaking temps and drought-related misery. But as Dan Moutal points out, there's a problem with this tactic:

The heat-wave and drought will at some point come to an end and eventually many areas currently experiencing sweltering heat will be hit with a cold spell. It is only a matter of time. If people's acceptance of climate change depends mostly on whether or not it has been hot lately then as the temperature inevitably cools their acceptance of climate change will crumble. Polls are much like weather and climate; there are short-term fluctuations over-top of long-term trends. It is a shame many wanting action on climate change fail to see this.

Ah, but climate scientists are telling us that extreme weather is the "new normal." It has been an oft-mentioned phrase this summer. Dan, in his post, explains why he finds this unhelpful in the long term:

This is the problem; reports of extreme weather will continue as long as it is hot out but all this talk of this being a new normal only works to send the wrong message to people. When someone makes the "˜new normal' claim I suspect many people expect that now this extreme weather will return every summer. That this is what a normal summer will look like from now on. What happens when we get a cool summer? What happens when we experience colder than normal temperatures? Won't people start asking "what happened to this new normal?"

It's good to see that some climate writers have their eyes on the big picture. UPDATE: In the comments, Joshua raises, what I think, is a reasonable assumption:

maybe speaking of the new normal will cause people to think that the odds of experiencing this kind of weather are increased with climate change, and as a result, shorten the path between where we are now and significant policy implementation that addresses the many obstacles that stand in the way.

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