Climate Change Versus Weather: An Environmental Education Primer

Last weekend had the nicest weather of the year here in Saint Paul. The temperatures were in the 80s, the sun was shining brightly, the clouds were big and poufy, and the garden center was packed with people ready to get planting. We were no exception, spending a good amount of time over the weekend sowing seeds and planting seedlings. At the end of the weekend, while preparing for the week, I noticed the weather prediction for the week was pretty wet with a good chance of rain most days. And that is exactly what has been happening. Sudden downpours, summer-esque thunderstorms, and vivid lightning blazed across the skies. It has all been such a difference from last week’s mostly sunny and warm weather!

And the meteorologists were correct: this has been one solidly (or shall I say, fluidly) wet week. There were thunderstorms waking us up at night, for two nights in a row to be exact, along with heavy rains off and on throughout the day. The plants have loved it, although the cold front that came through with the latest thunderstorm makes it feel more like autumn than late spring. But, that is how the weather works, right? Go anywhere, or log into Facebook, and you might randomly see a post from someone that indicts the weather from whichever state they live for being random and unpredictable.

That can present a challenge to an educator seeking to teach students about climate change because not only do many still confuse climate change with individual weather events, but climate predications are just as unpredictable as the weather itself. We have meteorologists on television and radio who provide us with worst-case scenarios so that we are better prepared should some terrific weather event happen in our regions. Additionally, because we are unable to control the weather, these meteorologists make their best educated guesses based on atmospheric data available to them. The same goes for climate scientists, who work to better understand the prevailing weather conditions in a general area or over a long period of time.

And that is the definition of climate, which is different from the definition of weather: the state of the atmosphere at any given point in time and place. Those who have not been taught the differences between weather and climate often confuse these two definitions. Those who claim climate change is a hoax cite some weather event happening at a very specific place and time. That is not climate; that, in and of itself, is weather. Each individual weather event creates the ever-evolving narrative of climate, which, yes, does change naturally over many years. It typically takes a few generations for a change in climate to be detected, unless there is some extraneous interference such as literally releasing tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (causing the atmosphere to warm, hence why we sometimes refer to climate change as global warning).

In environmental education, we are tasked with differentiating between climate change and weather so that students learning from us can distinguish the difference, and think more critically about how humans fit within the larger, global ecosystem. In a following essay, we will explore how these differences can be taught at both larger and more local levels.

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