Commentary

What’s So Bad About a Warm Winter?

It’s official: 2006 is the warmest year in the temperature history of the lower 48 states. The records go back to 1895, and so far, with the exception of the far West, the winter of 2006-7 hasn’t been much cooler than your average fall. Last summer was the third hottest of all.

Our hot summers have tended to be about 2 degrees F warmer than the century-scale average, while our winters have warmed by about 4 degrees. But a global warming or cooling trend doesn’t guarantee that any individual year or season will be warm or cold. The summer of 2004, for example, was the 15th coldest since 1895, and the winter 2000-01 was pretty chilly across the entire country.

Let’s be candid. This is the way global warming is supposed to work. It raises the probability that a given season will be above average, but it doesn’t guarantee it. Further, it’s been known for well over a hundred years — long before scientists were taking regular measurements of U.S. temperatures — that putting carbon dioxide in the air will warm winters here much more than summers.

There’s another peculiar (and predicted) characteristic about the winter warming: more than anything else, it’s the coldest days of winter that have warmed the most since 1976, while the hottest days of the summer have budged very little.

Just as not all “global warming” winters are warm, there were some spectacularly warm ones in the early 20th century. It’s nothing new.

“The official Washington temperature climbed to 76 degrees yesterday to tie the all-time January maximum temperature,” the Washington Post reported on January 15, 1932. “Flowers have never ceased to bloom in the capital this year, coaxed out by the succeeding days of warm weather…frogs are croaking in the reservoir…just like they do in the summer.”

The warmth of the eastern half of the U.S. in the winter of 1931-2 is like one of those baseball records people thought would never be topped. But, of course, both baseball and climate change, assisted by modern chemistry and technology, break old records. Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs, and one winter will eventually best 1931-32.

And that winter will probably be even more enjoyable. As the Post further reported that year, “Coatless citizens pluck pansies and pussy willows at New Haven, Conn….Cleveland schoolboys go swimming in Lake Erie with temperature at 70.”

Sounds like people were having fun back then, just as they are now. Hard to find a downbeat face, even here in politically shocked Washington. Maybe people are thinking about their heating bills. Maybe they are relieved not to have to experience the sheer terror that a single inch of snow causes around here.

Temperatures began their recent climb with a sudden climate shift in the Pacific Ocean in 1976. In the succeeding three decades, winters warmed more than summers, colder temperatures rose more than hot ones, some places were drier, and some were wetter.

But meanwhile, life expectancy, per-capita income, and crop yields went up, while the real cost of most commodities dropped. Global warming didn’t make all those salubrious things happen — although it had a little to do with higher crop yields — but it surely did not stop them.

That prosperity and Washington’s smiling winter faces won’t stop the new legislative express on global warming. Nor will it stop naysayers who correctly proclaim that no politically viable proposal will ever do anything to slow planetary warming in a fashion that can even be measured.

It’s not just the usual suspects who tout this. Scientists way on the left of the global warming spectrum, like Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, and Germany’s Paul Crutzen, now speak of technological “fixes,” such as injecting particles into the stratosphere to block sunlight, precisely because they appreciate how little any global warming law could accomplish, and how much it would cost.

That, coupled with the people’s general satisfaction with the warm winter and their prosperity as the planet warms, should provoke the real debate concerning global warming. If, in fact, we can develop technology to choose the planet’s mean temperature, where should we set it?

Before we began burning much fossil fuel, the hemisphere was mired in the “Little Ice Age.” Glaciers threatened European villages. Want to go back there? Or, maybe we’d like it like it is now, or even warmer.

I don’t know the answer, but that’s the question society will ultimately wrestle with as it enjoys warmer winters, and finally acknowledges the futility of attempting to stop warming with impotent legislative acts