I opened the back door Monday morning to let the dog out, and she bounded into the yard, alert for squirrels or any other mischief she might find.
But two steps out the door, she stopped, stunned by the frigid air. She turned slowly and looked back up at me with a comical, you-have-got-to-be-kidding look on her face.
Yes, it’s cold. Bone-chilling, maybe record-breaking cold. And when I opened the door again five minutes later, it was one relieved, happy dog who bolted back into the warmth.
But as the saying goes, one robin does not make a spring, and one winter cold spell does not alter the reality of climate change. Local conditions notwithstanding, the World Meteorological Organization says that 2010 is likely to rank as the third warmest year on record dating back to 1850.
NASA, which uses records dating to 1880, believes 2010 will top even the previous record set in 2005. Either way, 14 of the warmest years on record will have occurred in the last 15 years, which is a pretty strong indication of a trend.
Atmospheric scientist Gerald Meehl, with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., told a House subcommittee last month that in the last decade, twice as many record highs were set in the United States as record lows. (In a stable climate, record highs and lows would be equal.)
The trend is also evident in Georgia, where Atlanta has recorded 13 record December highs over the last 20 years, compared to just one record low. Rural areas report the phenomenon as well. Young Harris, in the North Georgia mountains, has recorded six record highs in December in the last 20 years but no record lows.
Nonetheless, large segments of the American public continue to reject the existence of global warming. Others accept the reality of the data documenting a warming trend, but question the scientific consensus that the change is being driven by mankind.
Causation is admittedly a hard thing to judge for those of us who aren’t trained climatologists. Personally, I find it telling that experts began predicting this warming more than 30 years ago, and the trend has played out pretty much as they projected. That predictive success demonstrates a pretty deep understanding of a very complex, multivariable system such as global climate.
In other words, they seem to know what they’re doing.
Those experts also warn that the changes we’ve seen in our own lifetimes are relatively minor compared to the impact of change that will accumulate over decades. The world our grandchildren inherit is likely to be very different from the world we have known.
Human nature, on the other hand, doesn’t change quickly at all. It always looks for ways to dismiss news it doesn’t want to accept. Climate change is like hearing your doctor warn that if you don’t give up cigarettes and alcohol, you’ll probably die of a heart attack. The instinct to bargain kicks in immediately.
“What do you mean by ‘probably’ Doc? That means you’re not sure, right?”
“Well, we’re pretty sure. We can’t be 100 percent sure, but most physicians would tell you that there’s a high likelihood of that occurring.”
“‘Most physicians’, Doc? So, a few of you DON’T agree? There’s no consensus?”
The denial also reminds me of a scene in the movie “Dumb and Dumber,” when Lloyd, played by Jim Carrey, asks the beautiful Mary what his chances are with her.
“Not good,” Mary says.
“You mean, not good like one out of a hundred?”
“I’d say more like one out of a million,” Mary tells him.
“So you’re telling me there’s a chance. …”
Yes, there’s a chance that this warming is driven by natural factors. But as Mary would say, it’s just not a good chance.