We usually ignore inane network online news polls that ask readers to weigh in on current debates by clicking on a “Yes,” “No” or “Undecided” bubble in response to a stated question. But the ABC News site featured a poll Wednesday that was so egregiously nitwitted that it deserves comment:
A massive winter storm has dumped snow on 22 states this week. One area of upstate New York received record snowfall, with some regions getting more than 12 feet of snow.
How do you reconcile Global Warming with winter weather?
Yes. Although it is cold today, average temperatures for the year are rising. No. With storms this large and the arctic temperatures many experienced last week, I have my doubts. Maybe. There definitely seems to be changes happening in our climate, but is it global warming?
Where to begin? Well, first of all, one might point out that “Yes,” “No” and “Maybe” are not grammatically acceptable answers to the stated question, but the real problem with this poll was much more serious.
The science behind climate change and global warming is complicated. To begin with they are not necessarily the same thing, and neither are weather and climate. Weather refers to the state of the atmosphere in a specific place at a specific time. Climate refers to the prevailing — one could also say average — weather conditions in a given area (whether that be Earth or upstate New York) over a long period of time. Yes, as the climate changes, those changes will be manifested in local weather events. But an attempt to peg any one storm, or group of storms, as evidence that supports or disproves global warming (which is one type of climate change) is futile. With global warming we expect more drought, for example, but in a warmer world we still cannot call a given drought a consequence of global warming, because some drought always occurs naturally. It is like loading dice with extra sixes, instead of ones, twos and fives. Naturally, we would expect to roll more sixes, but since that number already existed on the dice before we loaded them, there is no telling, when we roll a six, whether it came naturally or as a result of our tampering.
The problem with this ABC News poll was that it asked readers to do exactly that: equate weather with climate change. Shame. The network’s reporters and editors should know better. Their poll implied that individuals could draw inferences about climate change just by looking out their windows. It also exacerbated a serious problem in the U.S., and one that is incredibly challenging for responsible climate journalists: most of the American public does not, in fact, understand the difference between weather and climate. ABC should be more careful, elucidating these scientific details for the good of the greater debate rather than obfuscating them. Scientists, government and the press must all do a better job of explaining to their constituents that global warming is an almost unfathomably long-term threat whose impacts may not be seen immediately or discernibly. If they do not, the public will retrench into skepticism every time a nor’easter smacks New England.
This brings up a second serious problem with ABC’s poll, which further reveals the gross lack of knowledge that afflicts whoever wrote it. Scientists predict that in a warmer world there will be more droughts at the equators, but also that mid-latitudes (i.e. upstate New York) can expect fewer, but more intense, rain and snowstorms, especially when there is a lake effect involved, as in Oswego County last week. Thus, the 12 feet of snow in question in Wednesday’s poll might, contrary to ABC’s insinuation, be perfectly in step with the impacts of global warming. But again, please, let us not try to count sixes on loaded dice.
Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.
ABC’s careless poll did a disservice to its readers, to science and to all the bleary-eyed policy makers out there that are trying to make sense of the climate debate. The network can do better — much better.