NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Readers of my recent article linking severe winter weather and global warming ("Cold? Blame Global Warming") raised a number of points that seem mostly culled not from science but from the disinformation campaign being run by right-leaning pundits out to discredit any Democrats advocating for action against manmade greenhouse gasses.
It seems necessary to point out that my article itself was not advocating action against manmade greenhouse gasses. It was merely showing that scientists believe there could be a connection between the extreme cold we've experienced lately and the general pattern of rising surface temperatures over the last century. Rising temps are causing reductions in autumnal sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, which, in turn, can disturb jet stream patterns, sending brutal arctic chills descending over the neighboring northern continents.
I did mention that rising surface temperatures are probably caused in part by manmade heat-trapping gasses. But I was not advocating anything. Just stating science, which offers warming global temperatures as one possible variable in shifting global weather patterns.
Among over 400 comments and a score of tweets, let me address a few of the more common points readers raised to "counter" that five-paragraph presentation of scientific research.
1. You can't have it both ways! Warming trends can't be responsible for frigid temperatures! Yes, in fact, they can. Changes in convection can alter pressure systems and send wind charging off on a new course. Change one variable in any complex system and you are likely to get unpredictable results. The confusion here is somewhat justified however. Scientists themselves until recently were expecting the polar vortex to shrink and milder winters in northern hemispheres to ensue as surface temperatures gradually increased. But science is constantly updating itself to create better models. And so must we.
2. We've gotten cold snaps like this before! Those weren't caused by global warming! Well, maybe they were. There are many variables that can produce such anomalies in the Arctic's jet stream, the so-called polar vortex. Not all of them involve global warming. The issue here is that the frequency of such severe winter weather may be increasing as a result of global warming. Like the major hurricanes we've seen in recent years, we may also start to see truly unprecedented winter conditions.
3. Arctic Ocean sea ice actually expanded this year! True, but only compared to last year, when it hit a record low. In the larger picture, sea ice in the Arctic in September was still well below what would have been expected even 20 years ago. Note this chart, provided in the fall report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
4. The Antarctic sea ice is expanding! This is true, if irrelevant. The ice surrounding the Antarctic continent has been expanding in recent years -- sort of -- and scientists are at a loss to understand what's happening and why it's happening. The new ice seems thin and its expansion minor compared to the ice melt in the Arctic. Part of the reason could be (again, counterintuitive) melting icebergs at sea and ice sheets on the continent helping keep surrounding ocean temperatures low enough for ice to form on the surface. But there's no bottom line on this question yet. Scientists just don't have enough data here to draw any conclusions.
Still, opponents of the idea of global warming may wish to take advantage of scientists' uncertainty in Antarctic to scoff loudly and scream hypocrisy and call the whole thing dead in the water. It hardly seems warranted, but if it makes you feel better, go ahead.
Unfortunately for all of us, the Antarctic situation is unlikely to change our interpretations of the Arctic, where we have a lot more data and the sea ice coverage is generally diminished. Different ocean, different hemisphere -- polar opposites, you might say. And the Arctic is a lot closer to home for those of us freezing our patooties off these last few days.
5. In 1974, Time Magazine quoted scientists predicting "global cooling!" Oh, those fickle, fickle scientists. Forty years later and they've flip-flopped, overturning the early opinion of one scientist based on nothing more than a half-century of data and scientific research. They are so silly!
Many commenters cited Time and articles from such scientifically respected journals as The Daily Mail (see my discussion of that article below). Others seem to be quoting Rush Limbaugh verbatim.
Meanwhile, the study I linked to in my article is from Oceanography, a peer-review journal published by the scientific, public, nonprofit Oceanography Society. The authors were a team of highly recognized scientists.
Yet these same commenters are telling me I'm buying into media hype. Hoo boy.
6. Scientists are all funded by the government! That's not true and, in our country at least, it wouldn't affect their credibility in the slightest even if it was true. Also, climate science is international, so if it is a government conspiracy, you're talking about many, many governments in the world involved.
However, assuming for the moment that the implied charge of scientific complicity with some secret political conspiracy holds any merit at all, let me point out that in the past half century, including 26 years of the Republican administrations of Nixon, Reagan, Bush and Bush Jr., the science behind global warming has consistently advanced and become more and more conclusive.
7. But Al Gore! Al Gore! Yes, his sensational Inconvenient Truth is a convenient target for radical conservatives. But Al Gore didn't invent the topic any more than he invented the Internet. He was informed on it by science that had been growing in certainty for decades prior and had already inspired a substantial public outcry for change long before he came into the picture.
Forget Al Gore, all right? Don't ignore the science to spite him.
8. An article in The Daily Mail quoted two scientists saying that global warming stopped 15 years ago! The paper in question is notoriously right-wing conservative and, like Fox News here, it tends to feature stories that appear to undermine political positions on the left. The author has a string of similarly sensational articles. The article in question relies on figures from the UK's Met Office, which has, under political pressure, recently dialed back its climate change predictions, many would say recklessly.
All that to say: unreliable source. A more reliable one would be the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which I mentioned earlier. The IPCC draws professionally conservative conclusions based on input from hundreds of countries and thousands of scientists around the globe. The IPCC said in its report last fall, "Ocean warming dominates the increase in energy stored in the climate system, accounting for more than 90% of the energy accumulated between 1971 and 2010 (high confidence). It is virtually certain that the upper ocean (0−700 m) warmed from 1971 to 2010, and it likely warmed between the 1870s and 1971."
The italics are the authors' and indicate scientific levels of certainty, which are statistical and far more rigorous than commonly used. Obviously there are disagreements among scientists about the extent and degree of global warming. If there weren't, I would be deeply worried about the integrity of the science.
Global temperature increases are typically incremental and may not be higher year-over-year. But over longer periods, incremental increases spell out catastrophic trends. This is the chart of global temperature anomaly provided in the IPCC. Even if the last 15 years were, in fact, zero, that result would be a blip on this longer term trend:
Could it be that the Daily Mail article deliberately used calculations that emphasized data outlying this larger trend to favor a politically conservative predisposition? Frankly, that seems a whole lot more likely than the possibility that global warming is over.
We in the U.S. have seen two natural disasters in recent years of unprecedented scale: Katrina in the Mississippi Delta and Superstorm Sandy in the Northeast. Now scientists are saying that winter storms also could become more severe.
Regardless of whether you think the U.S. needs to consider changes to energy and emissions policies, science holds the potential to help us analyze those past disasters and conditions like this current cold snap, to help us identify causes and predict and better prepare for future calamities.
Nature will proceed and we will have to bear the force of whatever she throws at us regardless of what we believe. Science can help, but not if we ignore it. Not if we spend all our efforts trying to discredit it for political purposes.
-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in Asbury Park