KSJ Tracker February 17, 2014

A Useful Global Warming Argument: Poughkeepsie (or Chicago) is Smaller Than You Think

Times Story Says Even New York is Not the World

It was almost inevitable that a climate discussion would come up last Thursday as I waited at the Philadelphia International Airport for my second cancelled flight of the day. Thousands of people were stranded by unusual snow and ice. I struck up a conversation with a couple of bankers – frequent flyers with outsized carbon footprints. Amid the grousing, one of them interjected a comment more or less like, “So much for global warming, ha ha.” And then the other one chimed in, with a tone of mockery, recalling how liberals keep trying to explain to him that the cold really is a sign of global warming.

Moods were tense, and Philadelphia’s brotherly love was wearing thin. It was no time to get into a squabble, but as a responsible citizen I did at least point out that it’s rather balmy in Alaska and the west is parched.

Next time, I’ll start with a question. How big is the U.S. as a portion of the globe? I got that idea from Justin Gillis’ piece in last week’s Science Times: Freezing Out the Bigger Picture. There are more complex arguments one can make that the abundant, slippery and slushy precipitation we’re getting in the Eastern U.S. is a predicted consequence of global warming. But the weather is also undeniably very cold this winter in Philadelphia, where we were stuck, and in Chicago, where these bankers lived.

A simple, elegant way to influence people is to point out that the globe overall is warming and that we all may intuitively carry around in or heads a distorted idea of how large a swath of the globe we inhabit. That’s what Gillis’ piece does.   

Scientists refer to global warming because it is about, well, the globe. It is also about the long run. It is really not about what happened yesterday in Poughkeepsie.

Yes, this is true, but these bankers are not from Poughkeepsie, they’re from the City of Big Shoulders. That’s where the U.S. geography question comes in.

The entire United States, including Alaska, covers less than 2 percent of the surface of the earth. So if the whole country somehow froze solid one January, that would not move the needle on global temperatures much at all.

That’s two percent including Alaska. I can’t wait to try this out on the next climate skeptic I meet. In fact, I’m going to start now with a survey.

In fact, even this year’s severe winter weather has affected only part of the country. The Arctic blasts were caused by big dips in the jet stream that allowed frigid air to descend from the polar regions into the central and eastern United States. But toward the west, those dips have been counterbalanced by unusual northward swings of the jet stream that sent temperatures soaring.

Many of us know this, but part of what makes good science writing is anticipating what the public does and does not know, filling them in on basic science and in this case, geography, without coming off as superior or pedantic. This story does it beautifully, so that people who already know this stuff will still enjoy reading it and perhaps use it to refine our ability to win arguments without causing undue animosity.

Many people, including these bankers, aren’t “denialists”. They haven’t spent enough time thinking about the climate to be in denial. They just don’t know what’s going on and they are influenced by common perceptual illusions. They will also listen to reason if it’s presented the right way.

I am probably missing other good stories that did the same thing, so if you’ve seen one, or written one, please send it my way and I’ll add it to this post.

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