The difference between weather and climate

This is a great two-minute video in which Neil deGrasse Tyson explains the difference between weather and climate (h/t HotTopic). It’s a preview from National Geographic Channel’s Cosmos series.

The difference between weather and climate is important to understand because people have a tendency to see variations in the weather as a reason to dismiss climate change. For instance, a cold winter can make people think climate change is not happening or is nothing to worry about.

The last time Australia had a significant drought, people were more willing to accept regulations to control their carbon emissions. When the drought ended, they lost interest and with it, the momentum to change. But drought will return to Australia and according to the recently released IPCC report, the frequency and severity of these droughts is going to increase. The next major drought could be soon if predictions of an impending El Niño prove accurate.

Don’t be duped by variations in the weather. It’s the long-term trend that counts.

16 thoughts on “The difference between weather and climate

  1. Useful. He puts it simply but well. People too easily forget the weather disasters, especially when they happen somewhere else. Getting people to focus on the larger picture and see that it is predictable, even if weather is not, is an important factor in making progress. Good job. 🙂

    1. I love simple explanations like this. I think there’s an art to explaining something to a wide audience and he did a great job in this video.

  2. The dog and the man is a nice explanation. Had seen a similar video before.

    Still people and people and when it is hot, global warming is quite naturally more on people’s minds and seen as a more of a problem as in winter. This is probably why the UN climate negotiations are always in autumn/winter. 😦

  3. FOX News which had been carrying Cosmos, strangely decided to carry a car race last Sunday instead of the cosmos program on global warming. Hmmm!

  4. I’m a big fan of Steve Easterbrook’s metaphor here as well. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how boundary conditions in complex systems like climate work, and I confess to struggling with it.

    It seems to me, another way of thinking about it is the metaphor of nested causal mechanisms -we have powerful, but short term causal mechanisms (weather), which are nested in long term, cumulative mechanisms, such as the Earth’s axial tilt -and on a longer timeframe, of course, greenhouse gases. At any given moment, even the cumulative forcing behind summer and winter alters the amount of sunlight by a couple of minutes per day, while in my home city of Melbourne, we can see 20 degrees C variation in less than 24 hours – but that two and a bit minutes builds up relentlessly over six months, whereas short term weather tends to even out.

    I found this article particularly helpful, and I imagine some of the folks here might appreciate it too. It is called “Why don’t well-educated adults understand accumulation? A challenge to researchers, educators, and citizens”

    1. Mark,

      Steve Easterbrook’s talk is really good! I agree.

      The research paper about stocks and flows is interesting. I feel like I understand stocks and flows but I think I got a similar question wrong on one of those online climate science courses I took a year or so ago. I blame the way the information was presented 😉

      Stephen Schneider explains the same concept using a bathtub analogy in this talk he gave to Skeptics not long before he died and the person in the audience just doesn’t get it:

    2. On accumulation…

      The best way to help everyone understand accumulation is to train everyone as a Chemical Engineer, where the concept of mass balance is drummed in repeatedly. It also teaches thermodynamics, heat and mass transfer and fluid dynamics, plus understanding of the unit operations necessary for efficient mitigation. Indeed, everything humanity needs to both understand and better still, solve the climate crisis.
      [full disclosure: I am a chartered chemical engineer]

      Depressingly, however, it turns out that the psychology of denial comprehensively trumps education eg: this quote from a letter in “the Chemical Engineer” from Trevor Kletz, one of the all time most respected UK Chemical Engineers, getting accumulation spectacularly wrong for atmospheric CO2: ”In addition, most of the CO2 in the atmosphere is said to come from the oceans and animals, and only 3–4% from human activity. Its contribution is thus a negligible part of the total. The original is paywalled here http://www.tcetoday.com/~/media/Documents/TCE/Articles/2010/833/833%20letters.pdf

      It was reading this sort of nonsense on a regular basis in my professional body’s magazine that got me into this debate.

  5. On the difference between weather and climate.

    My favourite analogy is the difference between waves and tides.

    Let’s say we want to predict if our feet will get wet at a given point on the beach.

    Waves break unpredictably, at least on a timescale beyond perhaps a minute at most. Tides are highly predictable, to within minutes on a timescale of years. There are also, though confounding factors – wind direction, atmospheric pressure and floodwater from rivers can also affect the height of a tide. Finally, on very long timescales, things like the melting of icesheets and even the gradual slowing of the earth’s rotation come into play.

    Now let’s see if we can predict if we need to wear a coat:

    Weather is unpredictable beyond a few days. However, we can predict seasons very predictably on a timescale of many years. There are though confounding factors such as ENSO, volcanic eruptions, anthopogenic CO2 and Milankovich cycles. And on very long timescales, the sun is brightening, which will ultimately boil the oceans.

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