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The New Normal

It will come as no surprise to those who know me that the Weather Channel is my favorite TV station. Recently I noticed that when focusing on issues related to climate change, Weather Channel reporters characterized increased weather fluctuations as “the new normal.” While I’m glad that the Weather Channel is finally addressing global warming, “the new normal” phrase is problematic.

I don’t like the label because it gives the impression that we’ve moved from one relatively constant state to another. When, as a teenager, I first started studying climate seriously, I learned that when TV weather forecasters predicted below normal temperatures for the coming week, “normal” referred to average temperatures during that week over the last 30 years. Thus, unlike our understanding of normal body temperature (98.6), normal weather was not a constant, but changeable over time. You could say that though our climate for the first seven decades of the 20th century was relatively constant, there is no such thing as normal weather. Some meteorologists have tried to be more accurate by substituting the word average for normal, but I think the distinction is lost on most people.

Who cares, you may wonder, besides weather-obsessed nerds like me. Accurately describing future climatic change, however, is critical to understanding the challenges we will face over the next 50 years. A discussion I had with a friend over lunch a few weeks ago illustrates this.

We were disagreeing about the impact of global warming on the fruitfulness of the planet. I remarked that changing weather patterns threatened to significantly decrease earth’s productive capacity. Given the extent of hunger today, cutting the world’s fertility by 50% would be a catastrophe of almost unimaginable proportions. He responded that climate change wouldn’t necessarily decrease the global food supply. He argued that while, as temperatures warmed, China might grow less rice, Canada and Russia would grow more wheat.

I don’t know enough to balance a decline in Chinese rice production with an increase in Canadian wheat harvests, but my friend’s prediction demonstrates the danger of the concept of moving from the old to a new normal state. This treats global warming as akin to climbing steps. You progress from a lower flat surface to the next higher one, and this concept does not capture the essence of Global Warming. We have entered a rapidly changing environment and we must live with an increasingly dynamic process. The climate won’t plateau after it has gotten a few degrees warmer. The conditions on the Canadian prairies may favor increased wheat harvests for a few years, but those conditions will keep changing.

Moreover, the concept of the new normal does not take into account growing systemic volatility. The increase in greenhouse gases in our atmosphere acts as insulation trapping energy and this excess power finds an outlet in bigger disturbances. We’ll see more instability resulting in unprecedented floods, droughts, hurricanes and tornadoes. Such conditions are not conducive to sustaining more bountiful harvests anywhere.

Perhaps unprecedented weather is what the folks at the Weather Channel mean by the “new normal.” But labeling as “normal” phenomena that have no norm is worthless. It obfuscates rather than clarifies, and we need as much clarity as we can get as we face this challenge.
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