If you live in the Eastern part of the United States, it has been cold the last few days. Many places in the upper mid-west and New England are familiar with that bone chilling, face stinging cold that can cause frost bite within 15 minutes of exposure. Whenever it gets really cold like that some people joke about climate change and say that they wish they had some nice climate change to warm things up. President Trump has often tweeted during particularly cold periods. In November he tweeted, “Brutal and Extended Cold Blast could shatter ALL RECORDS – Whatever happened to Global Warming?” The problem with tweets like this is that not only is the President conflating the terms weather and climate, he is also giving fodder for climate change deniers.
There is a difference between climate and weather, although the two terms are used to describe the same thing. Many government websites (NASA and NOAA) and other websites (accuweather, Climate Institute, and NSIDC) will provide you with a quick rundown of the difference between the two. There is even a Crash Course Kids video to explain the difference on YouTube. The main difference between the two deals with time. Weather is the state of the atmosphere at a given time. So when you walk outside with your umbrella because it is raining, that is weather. A cold snap for a few days is weather. Weather can change from minute to minute, which is how everyone gets sick in the winter when it goes from 55 Fahrenheit and sunny suddenly to 0 Fahrenheit with a wind-chill of -15. Climate describes longer periods of time of atmospheric conditions. Climate is how we know that the weather will be cold in New York in January, but hot and muggy in July. Scientists often discuss climate in terms of 30 years or more. A lot of the discussion about climate change discusses even longer periods of time. Climate scientists are look at the chemicals and gases that have been added to the atmosphere since the time of the Industrial Revolution back in the late 18th to mid-19th Century and discuss how those accumulations have contributed to the warming of the planet. Melting glaciers and polar ice sheets are discussed in terms of their thickness over years and not the state on a single day. Climate also looks at averages including average temperature, rainfall, sea level, etc. Climate change looks at the significant change over time. Although it may be cold today, the last several years have been some of the hottest ever recorded and we keep breaking those records.
So just remember, although it may be cold today, climate change is still happening!