Don't Mind the Cold -- It's Still Getting Hotter

Oct 22, 2013 | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Sometimes, it's all too easy to be frustrated by a unseasonably cold summer day and think, "Global warming? Not today, at least." This summer has seen a handful of days of that nature, but even when temperatures aren't as hot as we've come to expect, it's important to keep in mind that one cold day does not a pattern make.

Take this past June for example. According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, June 2013 was the fifth warmest June since 1880 and the 37th consecutive June with a global temperature over the 20th century average. The global average temperature for land and ocean surfaces in June 2013 was a combined 1.06 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average of 56.3 degrees Fahrenheit.

It seems like with each passing month, new evidence in support of global warming is created. Despite 2013's conformity with decades of rising temperatures, it appears that a few cold days here and there have a fortuitous effect on public opinion. According to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the percentage of Americans who believe global warming is happening dropped from 70 percent to 63.

The up-and-down weather of 2013 may also explain a drop in concern over global warming; 51 percent of Americans say they are "somewhat" or "very" worried about global warming, down 7 percent from Fall 2012.

What's the explanation for so many Americans becoming prisoners of the moment and ignoring strong scientific trends and the scientific community? Can a cool summer day or cloudy weekend really sway public opinion this much?

Some media outlets have claimed global warming is slowing down or even stopped, but such claims range from incomplete to wholly inaccurate. The rate of global surface temperature warming has indeed slowed, but that only tells a tiny part of the story. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, over 93 percent of the planet's excess energy is swallowed up by oceans, making seawater easily the largest heat "sink" on Earth.

While the theory that temporary stretches of cold can alter public perception of global warming may be partially true, a better explanation is that there's a misconception that global warming will only cause major changes and increased extreme weather events in a few places, and most of those places are far away.

Out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes.

The World Bank Group does indeed identify poor countries as the biggest victims of global warming, but that doesn't mean all or any of the First World is safe. California, a state with a GDP larger than Italy, had its driest January-April on record, and the Sierra Nevada Mountains only received a paltry 18 percent of its normal snowpack.

The average climate denier might rationalize that one dry year is an anomaly and the biggest effect of decreased snowpack on the Sierra Nevada is postcards that aren't quite as picturesque, but that would be forgetting one daunting fact: The Sierra Nevada provides about one-third of California's water.

California wasn't alone in having an unusually dry winter and spring, as over half of the contiguous U.S. was in drought at the start of August. A drought may not capture as many headlines as climate-charged hurricanes and tsunamis, but regardless of the deniers, the planet is "locked in" to climate change for years to come. Don't let a few chilly summer days change your mind on the reality and severity of the predicament.