Global Warming and Snowstorms: Communication Nightmare, or Opportunity?

Wed, 2011-03-02 10:03Chris Mooney
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Global Warming and Snowstorms: Communication Nightmare, or Opportunity?

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a group I greatly admire, has held a press conference (with attendant media coverage) to air an argument that is already quite intuitive to me, but is probably precisely the opposite for others: Namely, that global warming could mean more mega-snowstorms, of the sort North America has seen in the past several years.

On a physical level, the case is sublimely simple. One of the fundamental aspects of global warming is that it increases the amount of moisture in the atmosphere, because warmer air holds more water vapor. From there, it’s a piece of cake—more snow can fall in snowstorms than before. In making this case, the UCS drew in part on the awesome weather blogger Jeff Masters:

The old adage, ‘It’s too cold to snow,’ has some truth to it,” said Masters. “A colder atmosphere holds less moisture, limiting the snowfall that can occur.” He cited a study that found that a high percentage—as much as 80 percent—of all snowstorms in the United States of more than 6 inches during the 20th century occurred during winters with above average temperatures.

If the climate continues to warm,” he added, “we should expect an increase in heavy snow events for a few decades, until the climate grows so warm that we pass the point where it’s too warm for it to snow heavily.”

So the science makes sense–but on a psychological level, it seems to me that getting people to accept this most counter-intuitive of analyses is likely to be one of the biggest sticking points of all. Why’s that?

Well, first, people confuse climate and weather endlessly. We already know that. But that’s just the beginning of the problem.

Psychologists studying climate communication make two additional (and related) points about why the warming-snow link is going to be exceedingly difficult for much of the public to accept: 1) people’s confirmation biases lead them to pay skewed attention to weather events, in such a way as to confirm their preexisting beliefs about climate change (see p. 4 of this report); 2) people have mental models of “global warming” that tend to rule out wintry impacts.

Perceptions of the implications of lots of snow for the existence of climate change are like the results from a Rorschach test,” writes Janet Swim, a psychologist at Penn State who headed up an American Psychological Association task force report on psychology and climate change.

Suggesting that he knows this well, Marc Morano is already blasting Jeff Masters and the Union of Concerned Scientists over the global warming-snow claim. Clearly, Morano feels he’s on strong ground here, tactically or otherwise.

I feel torn about this. On the one hand, winter snowstorms have drawn massive attention and have affected incredibly large numbers of people. They speak to everyone’s experience. Tying global warming to that would be incredibly powerful.

But at the same time, the hurdles presented are incredibly vast, and I’m not sure good scientific explanations, alone, can overcome them.

That doesn’t mean the UCS and Jeff Masters should leave this topic alone. Many people are open minded and want to know what’s going on with the climate system; and for the rest of the public, over time we may push them closer to a point where these ideas will go down more easily. 

And that’s the ultimate takeaway: We need to move the public to a place where drawing a warming-snowstorm connection isn’t so challenging. I don’t think drawing the connection itself will get us there. Rather, I think other efforts, over time, will make people more willing to draw the connection.

Previous Comments

I think it helps to point out the recent extreme weather and temperatures in other parts of the world, particularly the unusual warmth in the Arctic.
Another thing I think confuses people is that they think numbers, like 1C or 2C change in global avg. temperature, is no big deal. It doesn’t sound very threatening to them, not realizing that there’s only 5C-6C difference, between now and an ice age.

http://c3headlines.typepad.com/.a/6a010536b58035970c0134862e7521970c-pi
says this summer was the coldest summer in the arctic since santa claus……..

To think I would be able to comprehend that colder means warming and warmer means warming is so cool. But alas, because my geology degree and doctoral degree hasn’t allowed me to distinguish between climate and weather I will just have to take your word for it. Thanks Chris.

The Union of Concerned Scientists published the results of the study on its climatechoices website and summarized them thus:

Across the globe, and here in the Northeast, the climate is changing. Records show that spring is arriving earlier, summers are growing hotter, and winters are becoming warmer and less snowy. These changes are consistent with global warming, an urgent phenomenon driven by heat-trapping emissions from human activities

now are they confusing climate with weather or are they just confused?

I think you are confused. I find nothing that is unclear in their statement, only in your question.

2006:” The Union of Concerned Scientists published the results of the study on its climatechoices website and summarized them thus:

Across the globe, and here in the Northeast, the climate is changing. Records show that spring is arriving earlier, summers are growing hotter, and winters are becoming warmer and LESS SNOWY. These changes are consistent with global warming, an urgent phenomenon driven by heat-trapping emissions from human activities.

so 2006 warm=LESS SNOW. now mooney probably had a hard time with this concept since it was so intuitive for him to understand warm = more snow, which is what the esteemed UCS are saying now. ie “Namely, that global warming could mean more mega-snowstorms”.

I think the UCS and you are confused and mooney has an intuition problem.

Lets confuse the issue more: “One of the fundamental aspects of global warming is that it increases the amount of moisture in the atmosphere, because warmer air holds more water vapor.” What time frame are they referring to here? Consensus (you know, the new scientific method) says there hasn’t been any warming for at least 15 years. so when chris says he understands how this warming means more snow what warming is he talking about?

here is something from NOAA that explains everything to even dumb ol’ me. http://www.climatewatch.noaa.gov/2010/articles/can-record-snowstorms-global-warming-coexist

seems to me it indicates that all this snow is from something called variability. I dont believe it tho cause when I look at the globes in the presentation my country is not in the normal space.

The CRED paper is excellent because it touches on the cognitive aspects of beliefs but that area could be expanded, which – unfortunately – would be somewhat counterproductive to its purpose as a guide.

In my categorization of thinking (and I’m open to clarifications), cold cognition can be distinguished from hot cognition or motivated reasoning. It’s been my experience that people routinely use heuristics-biases (Tversky & Kahneman) but those cognitive processes may not (I’m not clear on this) involve the active suppression of ideas that occurs in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC), where dissonant ideas are weighed and improperly discarded in order to preserve the integrity of pre-existing cherished beliefs.

In the book, The Political Brain, by Drew Westin, Westin explains how partisans react to information that threatens their preexisting views by rejecting this dissonant information. Not only do these partisans reject troubling information, their brains ameliorate the effects of this momentary cognitive unease by rewarding the brain for rationalizing away this uncomfortable truth. Ignorance is bliss, it seems, and quite literally.

The error of conflating hydrologic processes with temperature is best understood through the cognitive processes that give rise to it. Climate science is a rational process that occurs in the prefrontal cortex whereas the rejection of climate science is quite clearly an emotional decision made in the ACC. Much of the emotional landscape that gives rise to denialism is hidden in subconscious thought processes but it reveals itself on certain occasions. Snow = cold in the same sense as rain = warm. It’s a laughably fallacious argument at the rational level but remarkably persuasive at the crude emotional, associative level of thinking.

Just as the counterarguments to climate science are disinformation rather than heterodox science, the thinking process of denialism shows the classic signs of actively repressing an uncomfortable truth. Preexisting conceptions are being defended in the ACC and the thinker’s brain then rewards him or her for repressing a rational thought, in a sort of freeper aha moment.

I’d love to see someone produce a codebook for the disinformationally challenged, which would allow those of us who are impaired by rational thought to follow along with the Beck-ian thought process. Then we could see that science = ‘effete intellectual snobbery’ and scientist = ‘greedy grant seeking leeches’ along with the other gems of wisdom from the freeper codebook.

The lower troposphere anomaly for USA 48 for January is colder than any January since 1988. Snowfall however is setting records.

Yes, but you also have to explain why even the IPCC predicted warmer winters. I think its going to be a tough sell.

Very interesting topic. Not long ago I was thinking of ice or tropical weather will be. Today turned out to be a mixture of them. There is an interesting book, which deals with what happens when this occurs. www.konyv-konyvek.hu/book_images/66a/206716866a.jpg

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