Do not miss the woods for the trees

If we witness unusual weather occurrences in totally unexpected places and times then we should be reminded of ‘climate change’

The weather struck spectacularly hard last week. Judging by the ubiquitous and stunning pictures of frozen lakes and snow-covered monuments and the reports of sub-sub-zero temperatures in the US, we could all be excused for thinking that this was prevalent across the world. Or even that this deep freeze was unprecedented in history.

Indeed, it was not long before everyone was asking, or even stating matter-of-factly: “Where’s the global warming that scientists have been trumpeting?” In fact, even respectable media outlets like Gulf News echoed that idea with an article headlined in large fonts ‘So much for global warming’ (though I did get the mostly humorous tone there).

There are a number of misunderstandings that must be corrected in this story, with the aim to ensure that conclusions are always drawn from real facts, not snippets and for the sake of identifying reasoning fallacies that we fall prey to much too easily.

First of all, if we are going to talk about global warming, we better look at the whole globe and not focus on just one region — in this case North America — no matter how much the media are constantly turned in that direction. For, in fact, while that region was indeed freezing all the way down to Florida, Australia was experiencing a heat wave.

It was not as extended as last year’s city-scorching and forest-decimating heat wave, but it still set new temperature highs in 34 locations, in some cases by several degrees. And that was not just a pike: 2013 was the hottest-ever year in the Australian continent.

Cold bite

More stunningly, and while most of North America was experiencing the cold bite of the “polar vortex”, Arctic regions in Alaska, Scandinavia and other northern European places enjoyed above-normal temperatures for days. In fact, this “Arctic Paradox” or “Warm Arctic, Cold Continents” phenomenon had already been predicted by climate scientists in cases when the jet stream gets abnormally warmed and inverts the winds and the heat between the Equator and the polar regions.

Furthermore, even the “record lows” that had been reported in the US were new records only in some specific locations; elsewhere and overall, much lower temperatures had been experienced before.

In fact, weather specialists are predicting that by the end of this month, averages across North America will be above the 20th century’s normal levels.

So the first lesson we learn from this “deep freeze” is not to focus on a few days or on one specific region, no matter how spectacular the stories, images or numbers from there may be. One must take a larger and longer view — both geographically and historically.

Climate change

This past November, climatologists tell us, was warmer than average for the 37th year in a row. In Russia, it was the warmest November since 1891, when temperatures started being recorded. Siberia, a “deep freeze” icon if there is one anywhere, had temperatures higher than average by almost 8 degrees Celsius!

More widely, winters have been steadily warming for the past 40 years. Even the famously cold American states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, North and South Dakota and Vermont have seen temperature increases of almost three degrees, according to a Climate Central analysis.

The second important point that must be made and kept in mind in this regard is that “global warming” in fact means two things: A gradual and slow increase in the world-averaged temperature; and a climate change, whereby weather patterns and phenomena become abnormal, more extreme and “crazy”.

In other words, if we witness unusual weather occurrences, such as snowstorms in the Arabian Peninsula, sweltering heat waves in Europe, extreme floods in totally unexpected places and times, then we should be reminded of “climate change” and should get more convinced of “global warming” than the opposite.

Dangerous consequences

Scientists have worked hard to try to extricate the phenomenon of global warming, with its natural and artificial (human-induced) causes as well as its varied and dangerous consequences. However, it seems that they have not done nearly as well to explain it to the public — and to the media.

If the public — and officials — keep hearing the refrain that “there seems to be no global warming”, then no steps will be taken to at least slow down the phenomenon and we will not only experience more such episodes, but our children will inherit a very harsh planet.

By Nidhal Guessoum, published in Gulf News, January 15th 2014.

Nidhal Guessoum is a professor and associate dean at the American University of Sharjah. You can follow him on Twitter at: