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Cold weather snap fuels misinformation over climate change

By Peter Moskowitz (Al Jazeera America) - January 6, 2014

Meteorologists predict record-low temperatures for large swaths of the United States on Sunday and Monday.

The cold snap, which comes after snow blanketed much of the northeastern United States last week, has also led to confusion surrounding how weather relates to global warming.

Since the winter weather began, some Americans have taken to blogs, television stations and comment threads, asking (often rhetorically) how the weather can be so cold if the world is supposed to be getting warmer.

The question points to a misunderstanding many have over weather and climate. And scientists warn that the uncertainty surrounding that difference could hamper the mass global action needed to prevent the coming effects of a warming globe.

That skepticism could be seen in full force recently as snow covered the New York City headquarters of Fox News, from where the station broadcast several reports suggesting that recent cold weather conflicted with scientists’ assessments of climate change, or even suggested the globe may be cooling.

Fox News hosts weren’t the only ones taken aback by the cool weather. Donald Trump tweeted that the ship of scientists that was until recently trapped in antarctic ice was proof that climate change is a lie. And U.S. Rep. John Fleming, R-La., wrapped up the confusion between weather and climate succinctly when he tweeted, “‘Global warming’ isn’t so warm these days.”

But those who think cold weather disproves climate change may be ignoring a solid and ever-increasing body of evidence.

Cold weather is just that — weather, which is defined by NASA as “conditions of the atmosphere…over a short period of time.”

According to most climate scientists, no weather condition can be linked to climate change.

Just as the cold snap can’t necessarily be linked to climate by itself, neither can the unprecedented heat wave currently hitting Australia. (It’s so hot, meteorologists have been forced to add new colors to their heat maps.)

But unlike individual events, weather patterns can be linked to climate change. And scientists point out that patterns suggest it’s getting hotter and weather is becoming more dangerous.

The past year only made it into the top ten of the hottest years on record, but November broke all records for that month, and 2012 was the hottest year ever recorded in the U.S.

Weather is also becoming more extreme: hotter, colder, wetter, and drier than before. Storms like Typhoon Haiyan, which killed several thousand people in the Philippines last year, can’t be directly linked to climate change, but scientists say that the world can expect more Haiyan-like storms as the world gets warmer.

But despite the increase in extreme weather, people seem to think of climate change as less of a threat now than they did a few years ago.

Scientists warn that as every country in the world starts to grapple with the effects of climate change, the current confusion surrounding the science could have dire consequences.

As world leaders attempt to craft climate policy, experts say, it’s important everyone be on the same page, or else the confusion could cause gridlock, and humans could continue to warm the globe at record levels.