The Stakes

Apparently the recent outbreak of unusually snowy weather in the south and east of the U.S. has been fodder for climate change skeptics. An NPR piece on this subject leads this way: “With snow blanketing much of the country, the topic of global warming has become the butt of jokes.” Jokes? Okay, I’ll admit to laughing on the odd negative-20F Minnesota morning when some wit quips, “so, how about that Global Warming, eh?” You know what, though? It’s less funny all the time.

The igloo below (photo courtesy of Senator Inhofe on various web sites), erected in DC last week, is a “joke” courtesy of Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe. The signs on it read “AL GORE’S NEW HOME!” and “HONK IF YOU (LOVE) GLOBAL WARMING.” I’m not laughing.

Wherever you happen to fall politically and whatever your position on the climate change debate (to the extent that there really is one), this should terrify you. James Inhofe is a member of the legislative body with arguably more power to influence the direction of global climate policy than any other on the planet, and this joke is the intellectual equivalent of seeing an airplane overhead and concluding the theory of gravity is bunk. It’s not just unfunny, it’s dangerously stupid.

The difference between “weather” and “climate,” between a single data point and trend are among the many, many things the next generation is going to need to understand in order to navigate a new century of challenges. I firmly believe this. If our elected officials and our news media are content to allow or even advance a false equivalency between scientific observation and political posture, then the people writing nonfiction for young people must equip their audience with the tools to separate the scientific wheat from the political chaff, the photo ops from the data charts. It’s a high calling for high stakes.

Chart courtesy National Climatic Data Center.