SUPPOSE the climate landscape in recent weeks looked something like this:
Half the country was experiencing its mildest winter in years, with no sign of snow in many Northern states. Most of the Great Lakes were entirely ice-free. Last December 25th, not a single Canadian province had woken to a white Christmas. There was a new scientific study discussing a mysterious surge in global temperatures -- a warming trend more intense than computer models had predicted. Other scientists were admitting that, because of a bug in satellite sensors, they had been vastly overestimating the extent of Arctic sea ice.
If all that were happening on the climate-change front right about now, do you think you'd be hearing about it on the nightly news? Seeing it on Page 1 of your daily paper? Would politicians be exclaiming that global warming was even more of a crisis than they'd thought? Would environmentalists be skewering global-warming "deniers" for clinging to their skepticism despite the growing case against it?
Without a doubt.
But it isn't such hints of a planetary warming trend that have been piling up in profusion lately. Quite the opposite.
Snow falls on New Orleans's St. Charles Avenue streetcar in December
Meanwhile, the National Snow and Ice Data Center has acknowledged that due to a satellite sensor malfunction, it had been underestimating the extent of Arctic sea ice to the tune of 193,000 square miles -- an area the size of Spain. In a new study, University of Wisconsin researchers Kyle Swanson and Anastasios Tsonis conclude that global warming could be going into a decades-long remission. The current global cooling "is nothing like anything we've seen since 1950," Swanson told Discovery News. Yes, global cooling: 2008 was the coolest year of the past decade -- average global temperatures have not exceeded the record high measured in 1998, notwithstanding the carbon-dioxide human beings continue to pump into the atmosphere.
None of this proves conclusively that a period of planetary cooling is irrevocably underway, or that anthropogenic CO2 emissions are not the main driver of global temperatures, or that concerns about a hotter world are overblown. Individual weather episodes, it always bears repeating, are not the same as broad climate trends.
But considering how much attention would have been lavished on a comparable run of hot weather or on a warming trend that was plainly accelerating, shouldn't the recent cold phenomena and the absence of any global warming during the past 10 years be getting a little more notice? Isn't it possible that the most apocalyptic voices of global-warming alarmism might not be the only ones worth listening to?
There is no shame in conceding that science still has a long way to go before it fully understands the immense complexity of the Earth's ever-changing climate(s). It would be shameful not to concede it. The climate models on which so much global-warming doomsaying rests "do not begin to describe the real world that we live in," says Freeman Dyson, the eminent physicist and futurist. "The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand."
But for many people, the science of climate change is not nearly as compelling as the religion of climate change. When Al Gore insisted yet again at a conference last Thursday that there can be no debate about global warming, he was speaking not with the authority of a man of science, but with the closed-minded dogmatism of a religious zealot. Dogma and zealotry have their virtues, no doubt. But if we want to understand where global warming has gone, those aren't the tools we're going to need.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)