Tamara HarbarGoing Green
We could all use a good laugh to get us through the month of February. Enter two late night TV comedy pundits, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report.
Every weeknight, they knock the stuffing out of common misconceptions and misperceptions about the day's news items. The American news media seems to fuel the fun - unintentionally, of course.
Recently, some American media commentators poked fun at Al Gore, claiming this February's snowstorms on the northeast coast proved there's no such thing as global warming. Naturally, Stewart and Colbert took them on with humour instead of science.
Jon Stewart talked with his own "correspondents." One stood outside in a snowfall, another on a beach in Australia. To prove there's actually a global cooling trend, the snowbound correspondent pointed to a graph showing temperatures steadily dropping from August till February. The beach-bound reporter claimed the hot and rising temperatures of an Australian summer meant the whole planet was scorching. A third correspondent suddenly came on screen, panicking because the night-time disappearance of the sun had plunged the earth into "global darkening."
On his show, Stephen Colbert announced that because it had snowed a grand total of two times the week before, the theory of global warming was shot to pieces. His backed up this claim with "simple observational research," meaning "whatever just happened is the only thing that is happening." To clinch his point, Colbert said, "Ask any peek-a-boo-ologist," and a photo of a giggling baby flashed on his mock weather screen.
The comedians didn't need to explain basic science, they showed it. Their spoofs took something everybody knows and understands - the seasons and the daily setting of the sun - and then acted out how unrealistic it is to generalize these short-term, local cycles into long-term, planet-wide trends. Without actually saying it in words, these funny guys made it clear that weather and climate are different, and that we all intuitively know that.
Even though weather and climate operate on totally different scales, there is a connection. Climate is typically defined as average weather conditions. Those averages are based on decades and centuries of data and beyond. Averages let scientists spot long-term patterns on a global scale, while daily weather is so up-and-down, it's hard to predict even a few days ahead.
The European Environment Agency explains the relationship between climate and weather this way: "As an analogy, while it is impossible to predict the age at which any particular man will die, we can say with high confidence that the average age of death for men in industrialized countries is about 75."
Mark Twain gets the credit for saying, "Climate is what we expect; weather is what we get."
We might expect snow during a Canadian winter without getting snowfall every day. It's the average snowfall that counts. If over a few decades, data shows average snowfall has changed, we could conclude the climate is changing.
So the snowstorms on the northeast coast could be isolated weather blips or part of big picture changes, depending on long-range averages.
Climate change debate isn't usually funny, but maybe laughter can help us cope. Remember when former US vice-president Dan Quayle said, "It isn't pollution that's harming the environment. It's the impurities in our air and water …?"