Campus in Snow

A cold, snowy winter doesn’t mean climate change isn’t real

As we get ready to face another winter storm, and are still warming up from a frigid January, there are plenty of people questioning the validity of climate change. Professor of Environmental Science and Public Policy Brian Helmuth focuses his research on climate change and its impact. He sat down to answer a few questions about the difference between climate change and weather and what the biggest concerns are as we move forward.

Given we’ve had so many storms and such a cold winter how can we say climate change is still happening?

“One thing we tend to forget is the difference between weather and climate. Weather determines if you wear a t-shirt or a sweater on any given day. How many sweaters versus t-shirts you have in your closet is weather. Just because the average temperature is increasing doesn’t mean that we won’t have any cold periods. While the average temperature of the globe is defintely increasing, what that means for the weather is far more complicated. California is in the middle of a crisis caused by drought, but in contrast New England is still comparatively wet. When the temperature is below freezing that means snow.”

What can we do to slow climate change?

“There are a bunch of things we can do. Increasing energy efficiency of our homes and businesses is a critical step. But to have a lasting impact, we need systemic change and a shift away from fossil fuels. While this mitigation is vital, so is climate adaptation. We are in for some change even if we could magically shut off greenhouse gas emissions, and that isn’t going to happen any time soon. Especially in coastal communities, that means preparing for stronger storms, and thinking very carefully about how we build. If Sandy had occured at high tide in Boston, as it did in New York, the result for Boston would have been very different. Our coastal marshes can help absorb a lot of those surges, but only if we recognize the important role that they play and preserve them.”

What are the biggest concerns regarding climate change?

“I think the way the U.S. Military thinks of climate change is smart: it is a threat multiplier that interacts with many other stressors. Climate change doesn’t create hurricanes, it makes them stronger. The biggest concern is probably ‘what we don’t know we don’t know.’ The more greenhouse gases we pump into the atmosphere, the higher the likelihood that some really nasty surprises may happen. But that doesn’t leave us helpless. We can be ‘climate smart.’ Some commercially and ecologically important species are more sensitive to change than others, and some do better under warmer temperatures. We can use that information to plan for the future. What is clear, though, is that no matter what, a ‘business as usual’ approach is simply not going to cut it.”

College of Science