The U.S. may have experienced more than its fair share of unusual weather this past year, but this has nothing to do with global warming.
Global warming theory advocates were quick to seize on last summer's heat waves and the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch as evidence that global warming is underway. But the recent spate of mild winter weather has some Americans wondering if global warming is really that much of a problem.
During a recent visit to Newport, Rhode Island, President Clinton said, "...[O]n this magnificent December day in Rhode Island, it's hard to see [global warming] as a threat... I appreciate this wonderful day."1
Many Americans no doubt agree. Milder temperatures permitted Americans to enjoy such outdoor activities as bicycling, running and gardening a little longer in 1998. Perhaps more important, the mild weather has saved consumers a considerable amount of money in heating bills. In November, declining demand for heating fuel resulted in a 12% drop in spot gas prices - good news for consumers, particularly those on fixed incomes.2
But mild weather can no more be credited to global warming than severe weather events like hurricanes can be blamed on it. Just because the weather is mild in one area of the world does not mean the entire planet is warmer. Indeed, at the very time the U.S. has enjoyed mild weather, Europe has been experiencing a severe cold snap. Since the first week of November, temperatures in northern Scandinavia have repeatedly fallen below -20° F while Moscow's temperature has consistently been below freezing.3
Our recent mild weather is more likely linked to La Niña, the large-scale drop in sea surface temperatures across the central and eastern tropical Pacific, than global warming. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), La Niñas are characterized by warmer than normal winters in the Southeast and colder than normal winters in the Northwest.4
It's also worth noting that mild winter temperatures in the U.S. are nothing new. In December 1888 - when the planet was presumably colder than it is today - Pennsylvania reached 82° F.5
Proponents of the global warming theory have also erroneously assumed that the high death toll from Hurricane Mitch - estimated at 11,000 - is evidence that human activities are warming the planet beyond acceptable levels. To drive this point home, NOAA scientists recently announced that Mitch was the deadliest hurricane in the Atlantic basin since 1780, when a hurricane that struck Martinique, St. Eustatius and Barbados killed 22,000 people.6 But even if this were the case, setting a 218-year hurricane fatality record is hardly evidence that global warming is underway. For one thing, the 1780 Caribbean hurricane occurred during the Little Ice Age, when the planet was close to 1° F cooler than it is today.7 Since twice as many people lost their lives to that hurricane as lost their lives to Mitch, hurricane fatalities seem to be a poor measure of the planet's temperature. For another thing, hurricane fatalities should be higher today than they were 50, 100 or even 200 years ago - even assuming no change in hurricane intensity - due to increases in population density and better recordkeeping methods. As population grows, more people will be vulnerable to severe weather. It's as simple as that. Finally, it is not clear that Hurricane Mitch was the most deadly hurricane since 1780. A hurricane striking Galveston, Texas in 1900 killed between 8,000 and 12,000 people. In its haste to show "record" hurricane fatalities, NOAA simply edited out the upper range of this death estimate.8
Global warming theory advocates have also argued that this year's heat waves were the result of global warming, as though the U.S. had never experienced hot weather before. This year's hot weather didn't even set records. North America's record high was reached on July 10, 1913, when Death Valley hit a sweltering 134° F. None of the other seven continents broke records either. Africa hit its record high in 1922, Asia in 1942, Australia in 1889, Europe in 1881, South America in 1905, Oceania in 1912 and Antarctica in 1974.9 So much for "record" temperatures being linked to global warming.
The recent mild weather should give those seeking regulations to curb global warming cause for second thoughts, however. Some scientists believe that warmer global temperatures would produce milder evening and winter temperatures and longer growing seasons. Before we move to stop global warming, we must not only be sure it is underway, but that we want to stop it.
1 President Bill Clinton, Remarks at Fort Adams State Park in Newport, Rhode Island on Safe Drinking Water (Washington, D.C.: Federal News Service, December 3, 1998), p. 1.
2 Steven Chase, "Warm Weather Puts Chill in Oil Patch: Natural Gas Producers Face Falling Prices if Mercury Doesn't Drop Soon, Analysts Say," The Globe and Mail, November 27, 1998, p. B1.
3 Philip Eden, "The Weather: No Magic Wand for Winter Weather Spell," The London Daily Telegraph, November 22, 1998, p. 42.
4 U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Answers to La Niña Frequently Asked Questions (Washington, D.C.: NOAA Public Affairs, November 11, 1998).
5 U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, State Monthly Temperature Extremes (Washington, D.C.: NOAA, 1997).
6 U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Mitch: The Deadliest Atlantic Hurricane Since 1780 (Washington, D.C.: NOAA, 1998), p. 1.
7 Hugh W. Ellsaesser, "What You Never Hear About Greenhouse Warming," November 7, 1997.
8 Edward N. Rappaport and Jose Fernandez-Partagas, "The Deadliest Atlantic Tropical Cyclones, 1492-1994," NOAA Technical Memorandum NWS NHC-47, National Hurricane Center.
9 U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Global Measured Extremes of Temperature and Precipitation (Washington, D.C.: NOAA, March 27, 1998), p. 1.
David A. Ridenour is Vice President of The National Center for Public
Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank, where he oversees the group's
environmental program. Comments may be sent to [email protected].