Winter is here, and this year it struck with a vengeance. New snowfalls nearly every day, bone-chilling double-digit cold and pipes bursting everywhere you look. After the last few years of warm and mostly snowless (Canadian!) winters, I was beginning to wonder if weather like this would ever return. In many ways, this is the kind of winter I remember from childhood. In others, though, it’s starting to get a lot colder than that. As severe winter storms and record-setting low temperatures continue to shut down entire regions from the Midwestern US through to the Maritimes, we’re now being told that in some areas, nobody under 40 remembers weather like this.

I can think of no better example to illustrate why “climate change” is a far more appropriate term than “global warming”. Increased concentrations of greenhouse gasses don’t always mean a slow and constant ratcheting up of temperatures. Instead, they often throw complex systems out of balance leading to a loss of stability and predictability, causing more extreme temperatures at both ends of the thermometer. This latest cold spell is being attributed to the influence of an unusually warm Arctic, causing the “Polar vortex” (cold air currents which circulates around the Arctic in winter) to move south and dump freezing temperatures south across the continent.

Did climate change have anything to do with this, or any of the past few week’s snow and ice storms? That’s certainly been suggested. As usual, it may be impossible to tell for sure. What climate scientists can tell us us is that current carbon levels make weather like this all but inevitable, though far less predictable, and that extreme weather already on the increase.

This science, unfortunately, seems to be receding from public debate. The rhetoric of climate denial is taking hold with an increasingly bold, self-assured and vitriolic tone, as well as quickly descending into crazed discussions of “warmist” conspiracies. Their most recent targets are the Prof. Chris Turney and his research crew, recently rescued when their ship became trapped in arctic ice during a research mission. Pundits like Terrance Corcoran have capitalized on their misfortune, asking (rhetorically) if Prof. Turney is “a guinea pig trapped in the folly of global warming science, his ship still mired in ice that should not be there?”. This is a low blow. Being stranded in the least hospitable environment on earth is nothing to joke about, and proves absolutely nothing about global trends in temperature or ice coverage.

As for this year’s “rebound” in Arctic ice volumes, another favorite topic of deniers at the moment, it’s still one of the lowest volumes on record. The much-touted “50% increase” comes after decades in decline and the single worst year on record – meaning that even small variations now show up as double-digit percentages (when these measurements began it would have been more like 15%). Watch any stock market for a few days and you’ll see the same kind of saw-tooth graph patterns – attempt to make money on those markets and you’ll soon learn how little a single uptick can mean. For those who put more faith in markets than science, I have only one question: how much of your own money would you bet on the “recovery” of an increasingly volatile stock, against the advice of every credible expert, following three decades of 4% annual losses?

The above are examples of relying on cherry-picked data to come to big, sweeping conclusions, and it’s one of many reasons I just can’t take deniers’ arguments seriously. Declaring global warming “over” every time cold weather hits the news doesn’t fill me with confidence either. If record shattering droughts and the flooding of New York and New Orleans don’t prove anything, then I hardly see how a year of ice growth at the North Pole or a ship becoming icebound in Antarctic waters count for much. Climate science may not be perfect and there’s still plenty it doesn’t understand, but there is no longer any credible debate about whether or not climate change is happening, nor has there been for many years now.

It seems every few months we’re facing another kind of unprecedented, weather-related disaster, from heat-waves to hurricanes to ice storms, each with their own region-wrecking potential. Climate change isn’t going away, and from all indications, things will get a lot worse before they get better. Recent projections from ExxonMobil, mirroring those made over the past few years by BP and the IEA show us on track for around four degrees of warming by 2050 if “unconventional” petrochemical sources like fracking and tar-sands extraction continue at their present rates of growth. The general consensus right now suggests that much warming would provoke catastrophe on a global scale, a view backed even by the IMF and World Bank. Undaunted, governments and corporations are hard at work ensuring the expansion of drilling, pipelines and refining in the name of economic growth. As you dig out from this latest blast of crazy weather, ask yourself: is that something you really want to be a part of?

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