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Copenhagen in December Snows Offers
Ready Backdrop for Confusing Climate, Weather

by Andrew Freedman

Copenhagen, Dec. 18 - The decision to hold the biggest climate change summit in history in a far northern city during winter may not go down in the history books as one of the smartest public relations moves in history. The fact that it has become progressively colder and snowier here during the talks has meant that more media outlets have been highlighting the contrast between the weather outside, and the subject being discussed inside the conference center, once more confusing weather and climate.

Never mind that there are major differences between day-to-day weather patterns and long-term climate change, or that scientists say that northern latitudes are likely to continue to experience snow even in a warming climate. The fact is that the public is rather confused about climate science, particularly in the U.S., and the dissonance between a summit on global warming and a cold and snowy weather pattern can only reinforce this befuddlement.

Simply put, holding a climate conference in Copenhagen in December invites some in the media to mistake weather for climate even more than they already do.

For example, a Bloomberg story that made the conservative Drudge Report this morning trumpets a tale of a "blizzard" in Copenhagen with the headline of "Blizzard Dumps Snow on Copenhagen as Leaders Battle Warming." Nowhere in the story is it mentioned that snow in December is completely consistent with climate change projections, however.

Instead the story states: "World leaders flying into Copenhagen today to discuss a solution to global warming will first face freezing weather as a blizzard dumped 10 centimeters (4 inches) of snow on the Danish capital overnight."

Wait a second, since when does a blizzard mean just four inches of snow? As a New Englander, that seems like an incredibly wimpy storm to me. In order to be classified as a blizzard, according to the U.S. National Weather Service, the following conditions must be present: "Sustained wind or frequent gusts to 35 miles an hour or greater; and considerable falling and/or blowing snow (i.e., reducing visibility frequently to less than 1/4 mile)." In reality, the so-called blizzard was quite pretty, and not disruptive.

The Sydney Morning Herald also pointed out the irony of holding a climate change conference in the snow. "A white Christmas may please Denmark's children but Copenhagen in the depths of winter is an odd setting to highlight the dangers of a warming world," the paper reported on December 14.

Even more problematic for scientists who are trying to communicate to the American public that day-to-day weather is different than long-term climate trends, is the fact that Washington, D.C. is slated to get a winter wallop on Friday night and Saturday, with up to a foot of snow expected. Given President Obama's arrival at the summit this morning, and his scheduled return on Saturday, one can already picture the headlines that may serve to further erode public awareness of climate science.

For example, it's probably not long before we see a headline along the lines of: "What warming? Blizzard of the century buries White House, while Obama negotiates treaty to combat warming."

The Copenhagen climate summit violates what some might call "Wirth Doctrine," which refers to the actions of former Senator Timothy Wirth of Colorado, who chaired the first high profile climate change hearing on Capitol Hill during the scorching summer of 1988. Wirth and his staff reportedly scheduled the event so it would take place on what was typically Washington's warmest day of the year, and they shut down the air conditioning in the hearing room to enhance the atmosphere for assembled reporters. The result? The first major spike in American media coverage of climate change. (Media coverage was also boosted by a record drought in the Midwest, and fires in Yellowstone National Park, but still).

One need not advocate manipulating the public, but the UN might recognize that the "optics" matter, regardless of what the science says about continued cold air outbreaks in a warming world. Therefore, why not give camera crews and reporters something to work with that highlights the risks of a warming world, rather than shot after shot of bundled-up delegates freezing in long lines, amidst gently falling snow?

Andrew Freedman is an independent science writer and blogger.

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December 18, 2009