I’ve lived in Pennsylvania for 18 years and, despite the state’s frosty winter reputation, this is the first time I’ve ever witnessed a snowless December.
My personal observations aside, this has been a big month for global warming. On December 12, nearly two hundred countries signed an agreement in Paris that will help bring global warming under control. Less than two weeks later, a controversial article in an academic journal called Nature Climate Change warned that unless global warming is curbed, 72 percent of needleleaf evergreens in the Southwest will be wiped out. On a less contentious (but more apocalyptic) note, the head of the World Meteorological Society pointed out that our warming climate will thrust 1.2 billion people into ‘water scarce’ areas by 2025, mainly in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. In an ominous foreshadowing of what may come, Arctic temperatures were the highest on record in 2015.
While these data points should be alarming, residents of those northeastern states who have also noticed our snowlessness shouldn’t require them. After all, talk of man-made climate change has been in our public debate for decades. If you’re reading this article, the chances are you’re already roughly aware of the arguments in favor and against the scientific community’s overwhelming consensus that human beings are warming the earth’s atmosphere. At this point, if you haven’t been persuaded by the evidence that this is a real problem, no new information is going to sway you.
Our snowless December, on the other hand, should be different. Even if global warming had been a completely novel concept in the year 2015, it would be reasonable to expect people to at least draw attention to the unseasonably warm temperatures. Our music itself informs us that we should anticipate a white and snowy Christmas (which didn’t materialize) or New Year’s Eve (unlikely to happen). Considering that we do have a widely-known and obvious explanation for what our eyes can see and bodies can feel, though, it’s almost shocking that we haven’t witnessed a major outcry of concern. So why hasn’t that happened?
The answer, I suspect, is that we’ve reached a point where even our own experiences can’t overcome our partisan biases. If you’re a global warming denier, an unprecedented series of natural disasters won’t make you budge, so it’s unlikely that uncharacteristically pleasant late December weather would have that effect. If you support the scientific evidence, you don’t need a snowless December to persuade you. As for the people who don’t know or care about this issue, the chances are that they’ll recognize the debate as so polarizing that they’ll just retain their studied indifference for the sake of convenience.
The net effect is a social climate as dangerous as its meteorological counterpart. We live in the era of anti-proof, in which people can rationalize away facts that literally surround them because “proof” doesn’t count for much anymore. If humanity is going to be saved from destruction, it will be in spite of public opinion rather than because of it… or, even worse, because public opinion isn’t rallied until the devastation has become too terrible to bear. This is a disturbing conclusion to reach, but also an unavoidable one. It has unsettling implications about our capacity for self-preservation as a species, to say nothing of our willingness to utilize empirical logical when the stakes truly matter.
What a bleak note on which to end the year.
Author’s Note: Since I first published this piece, I’ve received several emails discussing the role of El Niño in causing these weather patterns. I stand partially corrected (this is still the longest streak in 116 years without any snow).