Climate Compass Blog

Weather vs. climate, and what a difference a few degrees can make

There seems to be some confusion out there about weather vs. climate.  For example, a Virginia Republican Party video urged citizens to call their Congressmen and tell them how much global warming they got during the big snowstorm a couple of weeks ago. But that doesn’t really make any sense.  In simple terms, weather determines whether you need to take an umbrella with you today; climate determines whether you need to own an umbrella.  Weather determines whether you need your down coat today; climate determines whether you need to own a down coat.  Weather determines whether you turn on your air conditioning unit today; climate determines whether you own an air conditioner.  Weather determines whether the plants in your garden have a good day; climate determines what plants will likely thrive in your local environment. 

Climate is the long-term average of weather.  Weather changes all the time; climates are generally fairly stable, allowing us to make long-term decisions based on the notion that the future climate will be like the past.  One unusual weather event does not mean the climate is changing. But many unusual weather events could mean the climate is changing. And climate change will mean that on average, the weather we will have in the future will be different from what we had in the past.   That could even mean that record-breaking snowfall events happen more and more often in Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Alaska Demonstrates a Bipartisan Approach to Climate Change is Possible

ANCHORAGE - "Hello.  I'm a Republican, and I believe in climate change."  These words opened a presentation at the Alaska Forum on the Environment and indicate that, here in Alaska, issues surrounding climate change have often transcended the partisanship that sometimes dominates the issue 3,000 miles away in Washington.

This bipartisanship has evolved because probably no place in America is the evidence of climate change more clearly on display than in Alaska.  Climate change’s leading edge is in the Arctic, and temperatures in Alaska have risen 4 degrees or even more depending on location.  With warming and its impacts visible to all and being increasingly analyzed on a local level, discussions of climate change, especially as it relates to adaptation, take on a tone all too unfamiliar inside the Beltway.

Yvo de Boer Announces Resignation

If there was going to be a fall guy for the chaos that was Copenhagen, Yvo de Boer was the natural choice.

As the executive secretary of the U.N. climate secretariat – one whose own profile has risen along with that of the climate issue – Yvo is closely associated in many minds with the perceived failure of Copenhagen. With parties’ confidence in him at an all-time low, it was no surprise that he announced today he would be departing July 1.

Regulatory Uncertainty Hinders Business in Alaska and Nationwide

ANCHORAGE - Alaska is a big state, with big mountains, big wildlife, and big development projects.  It’s also a place of big changes: the state has warmed more than 4 degrees, creating tremendous pressures on the natural environment and society.  But in a place where the people are always looking for the next big economic driver, like a $40 billion Alaska natural gas pipeline, uncertainty about carbon regulation is an Alaska-sized problem.

Federal Agencies Are Moving Forward with Climate Change Initiatives

Here in Washington we’re waiting for the snow to end and Congress to make progress on a comprehensive climate and energy bill – both can’t come soon enough. And although the federal government has been closed here for the past few days, the past few weeks have seen some significant progress by federal agencies on the climate front.

As part of an effort to lead by example, President Obama announced that the federal government will reduce its greenhouse gas pollution by 28 percent by 2020. Federal agencies have been working on developing their targets since the release of President Obama’s Executive Order 13514 on Federal Sustainability in October of 2009, which requires agencies to set a number of measurable environmental performance goals. This target is the aggregate of 35 agency targets and the Obama Administration believes it will “reduce Federal energy use by the equivalent of 646 trillion BTUs, equal to 205 million barrels of oil, and taking 17 million cars off the road for one year.” Later this year federal agencies will be setting targets for their indirect GHG emissions (looking for GHG reduction opportunities with vendors and contractors, implementing low-carbon strategies for transit, travel, and conferencing, etc.).

We’ve also seen indications that the impacts of climate change are to be formally considered in the operations of two prominent federal agencies. The Pentagon released a long-term strategy that for the first time recognizes climate change as a direct threat to U.S. forces. In the Department of Defense (DOD) Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) Report–the legislatively-mandated review of DOD strategy and priorities—the agency noted that climate change will affect DOD in two broad ways. First, it will shape the operating environment and missions by acting as “an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world.” And second, that DOD will need to adjust to the impacts of climate change on its facilities and military capabilities and will need to work to “assess, adapt to, and mitigate the impacts of climate change”.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has announced that companies should disclose to investors the potential risks and opportunities that climate change presents for their assets. Although the guidance is not a formal regulation, the SEC intends for it to “provide clarity and enhance consistency for public companies and their investors”. In addition to the physical impacts of climate change (floods or hurricanes, rising sea levels, water availability, etc.), examples of where climate change may trigger disclosure requirements include the impacts of climate legislation and regulations, international accords, and indirect consequences of regulation or business trends.

These recent developments, along with the President’s clear commitment to climate change and energy policy during his State of the Union address last month are very encouraging.

Speaking of making progress, its time for me to get back to shoveling snow.

Heather Holsinger is a Senior Fellow for Domestic Policy