The Better UTAH Beat airs Tuesday afternoons on KVNU’s For the People. Podcasts of previous episodes are available here.
Temperatures have been unseasonably warm in Utah these last few weeks. If you recall, last year Northern Utah experienced a string of bitterly cold, polluted days during the month of January. The air is still heavily polluted, but without a low pressure system stuck over the state, the sun has been able to make its way to the valley floors, melting much of the snow we received in late December and early January.
The weather changes daily in Utah–and as carbon levels continue to increase, we can expect weather changes to be even more severe. You know the old saying? If you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes and it will change. Wait ten years, and it could change beyond recognition.
But even this unseasonably warm weather we’re having isn’t evidence for climate change. Unseasonably cold weather is not evidence against climate change, either. That’s because climate and weather are two distinct phenomena.
On the one hand, weather refers to the atmospheric conditions in a given place at a given moment. For example, the temperature, precipitation, wind, etc. On the other hand, climate refers to those same phenomena over long periods of time, drawing upon averages and generalities. In other words, weather is what is happening right now as you hear me speaking these words. Climate is what has happened over the last century.
Utah has a cold, precipitation-heavy, winter climate with hot, dry summers. But that isn’t to say that there aren’t unusually warm days in January. For example, the record high for January 21 in Salt Lake City was 57 degrees, back in 1943. The low was a chilling -20 degrees. But we rarely see those temperatures. It takes a whole lot of warm weather to make the climate change.
Often referred to as global warming, the more accurate term is climate change. Global warming, despite the name, does not mean the end of cold weather. Climate change refers to widespread changes in the earth’s weather that affect not just temperature variations, but levels of precipitation, humidity, severe storms, even wildfires. The impact of climate change on the west will be particularly severe.
California has declared a state of emergency this year, asking residents to reduce their water consumption by 20 percent. That’s because much of the state’s water supply is at 20 percent of normal–and the forest fire season has already started in some parts of the state. But even a terrible drought in California this year does not itself point to climate change. As I mentioned earlier, climate refers to long-term weather patterns, not just what occurs in one year.
But the evidence from the scientific community is overwhelmingly clear on this one. A recent study by National Science Board member James Powell found that between November 2012 and December 2013, over 2,000 peer-reviewed articles had been published on climate change. Of those thousands of articles, only one dismissed climate change as human driven. Only one.
Yet there are still those who would deny climate change. In fact, one vocal state legislator here in Utah, whose preferred soapbox is Twitter, constantly confuses the relationship between climate and weather, between science and pseudoscience. This esteemed legislator doesn’t even accept that the climate is changing, let alone the extent to which humans are involved.
This really shouldn’t be a political discussion although it certainly has been politicized. Here in Utah, we can expect climate change to wreak havoc on our winter outdoor industry–though at the same time, it could very well extend our summer tourism months, assuming there is enough water to go around. Those are very real impacts on the lives and lifestyles of Utahns.
Mainstream scientists aren’t arguing about whether or not climate change is occurring, or even whether or not humans are responsible. The questions they are asking are about how fast climate change is occurring, how much humans are responsible and what we can do about it.
Let’s not let semantics and fear dictate the tone of these important discussions.