Although February brought record amounts of snow to Flagstaff, experts say the frigid weather conditions alone neither prove nor negate the reality of rapid global climate change.
Senior Ray Hoffman said he believes that inconsistent claims made about climate change make it difficult to understand what’s really going on.
“I’m a little bit skeptical of climate change and global warming,” Hoffman said. “I do think man-made pollution doesn’t help our environment. However, the Earth has warmed and cooled itself many times throughout history. I think a lot of my skepticism comes from the fact that I get wary of big corporations or government officials who aggressively promote certain causes.”
Avi Henn, the professional development coordinator for NAU’s Climate Sciences and Solutions program, said the primary cause for people’s skepticism towards climate change is a lack of understanding for how climate actually works.
“There’s a lack of climate literacy, which breeds a lot of misconception,” Henn said. “When people don’t know things, they get defensive.”
Henn said there are many who base their views of climate change on political ideologies and religious beliefs. He said widespread disbelief of climate change could potentially limit humanity’s ability to mitigate global warming.
“That’s my biggest concern: people saying, ‘Great, the snowstorm confirms my bias toward the disbelief of climate change,’” Henn said.
Tony Merriman, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Flagstaff, said it’s important to understand the distinction between weather and climate when considering the recent snowstorm.
“The storm didn’t tell us much about climate,” Merriman said. “Weather is the day-to-day variability of the atmosphere. Climate is the long-term averages of weather over a given period of time.”
Merriman said it’s impossible to draw conclusions about climate based on a single weather event like the snowstorm. It typically takes the evaluation of many weather events to determine climate trends.
Henn added to this assertion, and said the recent snowstorm cannot, in itself, provide any information about global climate. Henn said climate is definitively reflective of average weather conditions, and takes into account factors like temperature and precipitation.
“Here’s an example: we know that with warmer oceans — which we’re currently experiencing because of climate change — can result in more intense hurricanes,” Henn said. “So, when scientists say they’re seeing more powerful, prevalent storms, they’re not saying that one storm caused it. We have to look at weather in terms of its patterns.”
Merriman acknowledged that humans might be energizing the climate system to an extent far outside the range of what is normal. He said this energizing is what causes more extreme weather to occur. Merriman also said it’s important for people to understand that climate change has been proven to be caused by human emissions.
“It’s not as simple as temperatures continually rising,” Merriman said. “The Earth has many complex systems, and, with our emissions, we’re making these systems incrementally more energized. As they become energized, they become less predictable.”
Researchers for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that in the last 60 years, levels of atmospheric carbon have increased at a rate 100 times faster than before. Many experts find this man-made amplification of global warming to be worrisome. Henn said the most troubling possibility is that human society won’t be able to mitigate and adapt to these rapid changes in climate.
“The challenge is to understand that, in the past 10,000 years, the climate system has been quite stable,” Henn said. “Our societies have thrived on the certainty of climate. But now, if climate becomes less predictable, humans won’t be as good at growing food and water sources will become less available.”
Hen said education is the first step toward mitigating the effects of rapid global climate change. He said he believes it’s important to educate young people about the fundamentals of climate and the environment. Once a foundational knowledge of climate science is established, it becomes more difficult for young people to be dissuaded by skeptics.
“We need to rely more on facts and less on personal and anecdotal data,” Henn said. “Your personal experience is important in terms of forming views, opinions and ideas but, on a scientific level, it’s completely irrelevant. What we have to do is simply educate more people and push for more solid information in media.”
Henn said that after education, the next step toward mitigation comes with political recognition of the issue. He said it’s crucial to pressure politicians to make mitigation a priority. Henn believes climate change isn’t a partisan issue, because everyone is affected by it.
“It’s important to understand that we already have the technological and infrastructural ability to mitigate and adjust to this problem,” Henn said. “We could make this less of a problem fairly quickly if we could only muster the political will to do so. We know how to solve this. We could make it happen quite quickly if we could just shift our ideological paradigms.”
Hoffman said that all efforts, no matter how substantial, should be made to mitigate climate change. He said he believes that if people work together to solve this problem, mitigation is possible.
“I think that, no matter what, there should be some kind of effort, even on an individual level, to conserve and be environmentally conscious,” Hoffman said. “No matter what side you are on, you should be making an effort to conserve our planet.”