As the polar vortex is about to recede, for now, we’re still stupefied by our esteemed President. He, who considers himself the smartest man in the world, recently tweeted, “What the hell is going on with Global Warming? Please come back fast, we need you!”
But less stupid individuals than he are puzzled about how we can have record-breaking cold in an era of global warming. The answer is found in the difference between weather, a short-term phenomenon, and climate, comprising averages that trend over time.
Temperatures in a wide swath of the country have been in the minus 20’s with wind chill reaching down into the minus 50’s. The reason? Warming trends have split the polar vortex, a system of cold air and wind over the North Pole, and that has changed the pattern of the jet stream, pushing beyond-frigid temperatures further and further south. Chicago was colder than Antarctica. Scores of people have gone to hospitals with hypothermia. Schools and businesses have been closed. Transportation systems have been challenged. People have died.
Climate change is causing extreme weather events year-round, warmer sometimes than it should be, colder at other times, with more frequent and severe hurricanes, increasing severity of droughts, cold waves and wildfires. While this part of the world is experiencing record-breaking cold, Australia is struggling with record-breaking temperatures of 115 degrees Fahrenheit.
Trump, who gives The Wharton School a bad name, sometimes moves from denying climate change to denying the role of humanity in spurring it. Virtually all scientists (97 percent of scientists, according to NASA and other studies) agree that human activity, especially reliance on fossil fuels, is a significant factor. When the President grudgingly acknowledges the existence of climate change, he says, contrary to many studies, that fixing the problem would cost too many jobs. And, when he denies human beings’ roles, he asserts it’s a Chinese fiction designed to slow our economy.
Many of the three percent of studies denying a human role in climate change were financed by “dirty” companies with a financial stake in preserving the status quo. Other opponents of remedial action simply oppose any government regulation.
Trump has pulled the United States out of the voluntary international commitment to a shared timetable for lowering carbon emissions, and his appointees at the Environmental Protection Agency and elsewhere, many with links to the fossil fuel industry, are doing their level best to gut green laws and regulations.
Meanwhile, Democrats spout the slogan of a “Green New Deal,” but what that means beyond a piece here or there is anyone’s guess. In a divided Congress, with a climate denier in the White House making anti-regulatory appointments to the federal judiciary, prospects for a comprehensive approach are bleak. There’s little incentive in an election season to push for a carbon tax or any other approach that necessitates serious changes in behavior. And we’re always in an election season. My generation can roll with the inaction, but, for our kids and grandkids, climate change is an existential threat – which means that the stakes of the 2020 election are higher than they’ve ever been. Young people, who somewhat increased participation in the 2018 election, must get even more organized and vote their futures.