Climate fight heats up amid flurry of storms

By John M. Broder
New York Times / February 11, 2010

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WASHINGTON - As millions of people along the East Coast hole up in their snowbound homes, the two sides in the climate change debate are seizing on the mounting drifts to bolster their arguments.

Skeptics of global warming are using the recent record-setting snows to mock those who warn of dangerous human-driven climate change. This looks more like global cooling, they taunt.

Most climate scientists respond that the ferocious storms are consistent with forecasts that a heating planet will produce more frequent and more intense weather events.

But some independent climate specialists say the blizzards in the Northeast no more prove that the planet is cooling than the lack of snow in Vancouver or the downpours in Southern California prove that it is warming.

As an illustration of their point of view, the family of Senator James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma and a leading climate change skeptic in Congress, built a 6-foot-tall igloo on Capitol Hill and put a cardboard sign on top that read, “Al Gore’s New Home.’’ The extreme weather, Inhofe said by e-mail, reinforced doubts about conclusions by scientists that global warming is “unequivocal’’ and probably caused by human activity.

Nonsense, responded Joseph Romm, a climate change expert and former Energy Department official who writes about climate issues at the Center for American Progress. “Ideologues in the Senate keep pushing the antiscientific disinformation that big snowstorms are evidence against human-caused global warming,’’ Romm wrote yesterday.

It is perhaps not coincidental that the snowstorm scuffle is playing out against a background of recent climate controversies.

In recent months, global-warming critics have assailed a 2007 report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and argued that e-mail messages and documents plucked from a server at a climate research center in Britain raise doubts about the academic integrity of some climate scientists.

This week, Rush Limbaugh and other conservative commentators made light of the fact that the announcement Monday of the creation of a new federal climate service had to be conducted by conference call, rather than in person at a news conference, because the federal government was shuttered by the snowstorm.

But climate scientists say no single episode of severe weather can be blamed for global climate trends, even while noting evidence that such events will probably become more frequent as global temperatures rise.

Jeff Masters, a meteorologist who writes on the Weather Underground blog, said the recent snows do not, by themselves, demonstrate anything about the long-term trajectory of the planet. Climate is, by definition, a measure of decades and centuries, not months or years.

But Masters also said government and academic studies have consistently predicted an increasing frequency of record-setting storms because warmer air carries more moisture.

“Of course,’’ he wrote on his blog yesterday as new snows produced white-out conditions in much of the eastern half of the country, “both climate change contrarians and climate change scientists agree that no single weather event can be blamed on climate change.

“However,’’ he continued, “one can ‘load the dice’ in favor of events that used to be rare - or unheard of - if the climate is changing to a new state.’’

A federal government report issued last year, intended to be the authoritative statement of known climate trends in the United States, pointed to the likelihood of more frequent snowstorms in the Northeast and less frequent snow in the South and Southeast as a result of long-term temperature and precipitation patterns.

The Climate Impacts report, from the multiagency US Global Change Research Program, also projected more intense drought in the Southwest and more powerful Gulf Coast hurricanes because of warming.

In other words, if the government scientists are correct, look for more snow.