Media Snow Job: Weather Events Used to Cast Doubt on Reality of Climate Change

To hear certain cable news figures tell it, the existence of winter weather raises doubts about the reality of global climate change. Can the Earth's climate really be getting warmer if it's still snowing, they ask. Such a simplistic non sequitur might be funny were it not for the melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels, and the misinformation imparted to viewers by those entrusted to inform them.

"[T]he press has accepted the basic threat of [global] warming and is now prepared to address the cost and feasibility of various solutions," writes Curtis Brainard in a recent issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. Apparently, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and various anchors on Fox News missed that memo; either that, or they actually believe the fact that it snowed in Las Vegas during December or that there was snow and ice on the ground in Washington, D.C., in January contradict the fact that the Earth's climate is getting warmer. If so, they don't know the difference between weather and climate. If not, it would seem they knowingly deceive their viewers.

Given that understanding science can be difficult for even the intelligent and open-minded, allow me to suggest that cable news anchors and hosts check their facts at a website whose information they should be able to digest: the Environmental Protection Agency's Climate Change for Kids. According to the EPA's website for children, weather is "whatever is happening outdoors in a given place at a given time" -- including "daily changes in precipitation, barometric pressure, temperature, and wind conditions in a given location" -- while climate refers to "the total of all weather occurring over a period of years in a given place." The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says on its website that climate refers to "the average of weather over at least a 30-year period (emphasis added)." This includes average weather conditions, routine weather sequences (the changing of the seasons), and specific weather events (blizzards and hurricanes). So, winter snow showers: weather; global average temperatures over the last half-century: climate. And just for the record, climate scientists have made quite clear that short-term changes in the weather, let alone a specific weather event like a cold snap or winter snowstorm, have absolutely nothing to do with the evidence that the Earth's climate is warming.

Indeed, the suggestion that December snowfall in Las Vegas or January ice in D.C. are somehow relevant to discussions of global warming reflects either a profound ignorance of basic science or a juvenile attempt to deceive viewers. Yet some media figures participate in this snow job nearly every chance they get.

In one particularly inane episode, on the January 28 edition of his Fox News show, Glenn Beck had a car sit idling outside the television studio during his show. Beck said it was "for no apparent reason, other than it's really cold in New York." But Beck's stooge in the idling car, Stu, said he wanted to make the point that former Vice President Al Gore "look[ed] ridiculous" for testifying before Congress about the perils of global warming when there was "snow all over the East Coast." By keeping the car idling, "[w]e're just doing our part for global warming," he added. Got that? A man sitting in an idling car to do his part "for global warming" thinks Al Gore looks ridiculous for testifying about climate change in winter, when there is snow on the ground.

On January 28, after Gore testified about climate change before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, MSNBC's Chris Matthews said on Hardball that Gore "can't seem to get his message pegged to the backdrop" because he came to Washington, D.C., to "sell global warming" while the city is "under ice." Similarly, in February 2007, when a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee hearing on climate change was cancelled because of severe winter weather conditions in Washington, D.C., CNN's Wolf Blitzer called the situation "ironic." Suggesting that cold weather and snow cast doubt on the reality of global warming, Blitzer said:

"[T]he House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee was scheduled to hold a hearing on all things global warming this morning. Ironically -- get this -- it was canceled because of the winter weather conditions here in the nation's capital. It's cold out there."

Of course, lost in all this "irony" about the weather are the facts about global climate change. The planet is getting warmer. There's no debate about that; there is a scientific consensus. "Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average sea level," according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) 2007 Synthesis Report.

Yet the snow job continues. During the introduction of his December 18, 2008 show on CNN, Lou Dobbs said that "unusual winter storms are dumping snow in unusual places across Western states, and a huge snowstorm is headed toward the Northeast," before asking: "This is global warming?" Throughout the show, Dobbs repeatedly teased the segment about the storms by falsely suggesting that current weather conditions have some bearing on whether global warming is occurring. More recently, on the February 2 edition of MSNBC's 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, host David Shuster noted that there was snowfall in London, across Southern Europe, and into Morocco, and asked: "So where's the global warming?"

In an article noting that climate skeptics had seized on a recent cold spell, The New York Times reported that "Michael E. Schlesinger, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, said that any focus on the last few months or years as evidence undermining the established theory that accumulating greenhouse gases are making the world warmer was, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, a harmful distraction." To that I would add the quips of cable news figures who can't resist focusing on the most recent winter's snowfall or cold snap to suggest that such weather events are at all related to the issue of global warming.

While we probably can't expect Beck, Hannity, and the rest of the fine folks at Fox News to behave differently, Blitzer, Matthews, and others in the mainstream media should know better and should resist the temptation to use a cold or snowy day to suggest that such conditions call into question the fact that our planet is facing a climate crisis. It's factually incorrect. It's not witty. And it perpetuates the falsehood that the science on global warming is not settled, which undermines the incentive to begin acting to address the problem.

So, for those journalists who actually take the facts and their own credibility seriously: enough with the snow job. You really look silly. And if you don't believe me, have a look: