In January, the coldest temperatures in almost 20 years swept across the Northern plains, Midwest, and East Coast, creating dangerous and even life-threatening conditions. Temperatures in the Midwest dropped below -50 degrees with wind chill, the coldest point being in Comertown, Montana at -63 degrees. In temperatures below -35 degrees, exposed skin freezes in 10 minutes, so many were advised to stay inside.
These freezing temperatures were caused by a mass of arctic air that escaped from the polar vortex. The polar vortex is the cold air of the arctic that swirls counter-clockwise above the North Pole. This freezing wind is usually contained above the polar region but occasionally a kink can form in the jet stream, causing cold air to move southward. It is rare that the frigid arctic air makes it into the United States.
On January 8, the White House YouTube channel posted a video in which Dr. John Holdren, the senior advisor to President Obama on science and technology issues, explains how climate change can affect the polar vortex, causing cold snaps like this one.
Holdren states that the polar vortex is kept above the pole by the difference in temperature between the pole and lower latitudes. As the pole warms more rapidly than the mid-latitudes and as the difference between the two lessens, the polar vortex weakens, making the path of the cold air “wavier.” This “waviness” can allow more cold air to travel southward.
Some scientists argue that this frigid weather may be a random event, and that not enough research has been conducted to definitively state that global warming is at fault, but Dr. Holdren predicts more cold weather like this will occur as climate change progresses.
The reaction to this weather pattern may also be attributed to climate change. Because people have become accustomed to warmer winters, this freezing cold has become more shocking in comparison.
While many scientists have suggested that climate change may have caused the freezing temperatures, some people have used the cold as evidence against climate change’s existence.
Fox News anchor Stuart Varney mused, “Looks to me like we’re looking at global cooling. Forget this global warming.”
Those with climate change doubts have also attempted to mock global warming scientists, claiming that these scientists only decided that cold snaps could be indicative of climate change after the fact. Others have also accused scientists of making up the polar vortex to continue “the global warming hoax.”
According to Dr. Holdren, the freezing temperatures do not in any way disprove climate change.
He explains that the climate cannot be defined by any one event and is “described in terms of averages, variations and probabilities.”
However, many were quick to jump at the opportunity to assail belief in climate change despite the amount of scientists who believe there is evidence that proves it truly does exist. 97% of scientists agree that climate change is real and that the temperature is continually rising on a global scale. Why is there still dissent?
Climate change has become an increasingly political issue. A significant amount of the media that has denied that global warming exists are very conservative. For example, Fox News has hosted several discussions on the topic during which the anchors continually attack climate change scientists and those who believe that global warming exists. Other news outlets and television programs such as MSNBC and The Daily Show have responded, ridiculing Fox News for its denial of a phenomenon that the vast majority of scientists consider true.
The free market stance of conservatives contributes to their denial of global warming as the legislative solutions prescribed could affect the way some companies and people function. They fear that the way the government handles climate change will impede the liberties of corporations and individuals.
Another cause of the denial of climate change is the major influence accepting climate change would have on industries. Many scientists who claim global warming does not exist are connected to Exxon Mobil or Koch Industries, companies whose success could be hindered if people turn to sustainable energy. These companies have spent millions of dollars to position climate change as a tentative theory, not as a scientific consensus.
For some, it may simply be hard to believe that they themselves are harming the planet.
Chris Horner defended skepticism of climate change in a Fox News interview, saying, “There will always be people who seize upon climate or weather to assail those people whose lifestyles they don’t like, such as the witch next door caused the crops to fail and the babies to die, she doesn’t have an SUV, let’s set her on fire.”
Global warming denial is at its highest in six years. 23% of people now think that climate change does not exist, whereas only 16% held that belief last April. The rhetoric of Fox News and other climate change deniers is frighteningly effective, despite the scientific facts.
Unfortunately, no matter how cold the weather gets or how much it snows, climate change is not going away unless we do something about it.