Franz Litz – A Freakishly Warm Winter—is this Climate Change?

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Anybody smell a skunk?  Chances are you have recently, because the warm February weather has the skunks out much earlier this year. This has been one freakishly warm winter in the Northeast.  But is this “skunk” climate change?

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The answer is “maybe”.  When we are thinking about climate change, the important thing to remember is that climate is not the same thing as weather.  Weather is what happens today, this week, this month and even this season. Climate is what usually happens this time of year, every year over a long period of time. 

In other words, this is the kind of winter we can expect more of as heat-trapping global warming pollution wreaks its havoc, but until we have many winters like this we need to be careful about saying our climate has changed.

One thing we can say for sure is that the average winter temperatures in the region have increased by more than 4.4 degrees Fahrenheit on average since 1970. So yes, if you swear things were colder when you were a child decades ago, the evidence is with you.  It was colder, on average.  And it has been getting warmer, on average.

I bet more than a few of you have enjoyed the warm February weather. Newscasters in the Northeast seem to love it. One even joked “If this is global warming, I’ll take it!”

If you’re tempted to agree, stop and think a bit. The words “warm February weather” sound strange to most of us in the northern half of the Northern hemisphere because warm weather in February is strange.

It is strange for the animals—the skunks, the mice, and the bugs that hibernate. It’s strange for the plants that have adapted over centuries to cool falls, cold winters and cool early springs—like apple trees.  It’s strange to communities that depend on the revenue tied to winter sports like skiing and snowmobiling. 

These are many of the impacts of climate change we know about or expect. But there are also the risks we cannot now know.  Incredibly complex and interdependent ecosystems that have evolved over centuries to fit a remarkably stable climate now face a relatively rapid change in climate.  If one species dies out or struggles in a warmer climate, the ripple effects are unimaginable.

In 2006, the Union of Concerned Scientists put out a report entitled, “Climate Change in the U.S. Northeast.”  The report contained memorable graphic representations of the impacts of climate change on Northeast states.  For Upstate New York and Massachusetts, the report depicted the states migrating to the South to take on the climatic characteristics of South Carolina.  Vermont became North Carolina. The idea was to help people imagine what there surroundings might be like after global warming runs its course.

We have ourselves a freakishly warm winter to follow a freakishly stormy fall after a decade of record temperatures. Is this climate change?  It sure seems like it to me.

Franz Litz is the Executive Director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center and Professor of Law at Pace Law School.

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