Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Opinion | Global warming isn’t the end of cold weather

The threat of global warming is unpredictability. Humanity has gotten used to a certain climatic pattern and, now, the rising average temperature is throwing a wrench into it

As night-time temperatures in large parts of the United States plunged below that of Antarctica last week, the familiar arguments rejecting climate science came streaming out, with US President Donald Trump leading the denialism bandwagon. “In the beautiful Midwest, windchill temperatures are reaching minus 60 degrees," Trump tweeted. “In coming days, expected to get even colder. People can’t last outside even for minutes. What the hell is going on with Global Waming? Please come back fast, we need you!" Trump’s misunderstanding with what’s really happening is reflected in his misspelling “warming". However, climate scepticism is hardly the forte of just the US political class. During an interaction with students in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had created quite a flutter when he said: “Climate has not changed. We have changed…"  But ignorance or a misreading of science has at least not impacted India’s official climate policy significantly. It is high time that the political class in all major economies got up to speed on actual climate research, as it is one of the most significant issues of our age. A good place to start from would be a clear recognition of the most obvious fact: weather on a particular day in a particular location and climate, in general, are simply not the same. This winter, many parts of northern India have also gone through one of the coldest spells in many years. However, the last four years (2015-2018) have also been the earth’s warmest in recorded history. Essentially, the bone-chilling cold experienced by people in northern India or in the US Midwest has a minimal impact on the average annual global temperature. Last week, when some of parts of the US experienced one of the coldest days locally recorded, the planet, on average, was 0.7 degree Celsius warmer than the 1979-2000 average. The US, despite its size, covers only about 2% of the earth’s surface. Over the past 10,000 years, global temperatures, on average, have fluctuated within a very narrow band. That also happens to be the time span during which human population exploded, agriculture bloomed, cities were built and a set of broadly predictable weather patterns emerged. That is precisely what seems to be changing as the planet warms. As average temperatures rise, the nature and frequency of the extreme high and low is also beginning to change. In India, for example, while the overall quantum of monsoon rain (the average) has been falling since the mid-1970s, days of extreme rainfall (>50 mm) have tripled.  The real threat of global warming is unpredictability. Humanity has gotten used to a certain climatic pattern over 10,000 years and, now, the rising average temperature is throwing a wrench into that set pattern. A preliminary scientific hypothesis, for example, indicates that the polar vortex (a pocket of cold air from the North Pole) might have plunged southward into the US after unusually warm air currents invaded the Arctic and disrupted prevalent wind patterns. The seriousness and inter-generational import of climate science is so vast that there is no room for ignorance peddling, especially by those elected to high office to represent public interest. The least that the political class can do is to look beyond immediate partisan goals and have a fact-based debate on the way forward.

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