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20 April 2021updated 23 Jul 2021 5:33am

Why we need to talk about “global weirding”

Discussing climate change in terms of “global warming” can spark confusion. Is there a better way to describe strange weather patterns?

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

It can feel like an endless cycle: whenever a bout of uncharacteristic weather strikes – particularly unseasonable cold snaps – climate change sceptics argue this is evidence that global warming is not happening.

The link between global warming and climate change is frequently misunderstood. Recent strange weather events – for example, a mini heatwave in the UK followed by snow in April – have only exacerbated this misconception.

But if “global warming” is a source of confusion, could a new term – “global weirding” – better describe the increasingly erratic weather we are experiencing?

The term “global weirding” was coined by American environmentalist Hunter Lovins, and was popularised by the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in 2010. It is used to describe how climate change is causing severe adverse weather events – such as extreme hot or cold temperatures, flooding, or droughts – which will become more intense as global temperatures rise. 

[See also: The age of consequences: the future for which left environmentalism is unprepared]

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“If you’ve got a graph showing the temperature changing over a long period of time, you can say that’s climate change”, explains meteorologist Scott Duncan. “But within those trends, you’ll get all sorts of different [weather] patterns that might be changing – that’s what global weirding is trying to get at”.

Weirding is a consequence of a changing climate, which itself is induced by an increase in global temperatures. The unusual weather events that constitute “weirding” differ between climates, but abnormalities often include shifts between extremes. Just this year, we have seen events such as the Texas winter storm in February, and the record-high temperatures across Europe in March, which were quickly followed by snow.

Duncan says these strange shifts from hot to cold (or vice versa) could become “more common” as our climate constantly changes. “With the long-term warming trends, we’ve increased our chance of breaking [heat] records. But when we get these cold snaps, which are not unfamiliar for north west Europe, they become far more extreme and feel more profound”.

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Though he says it’s difficult to pinpoint exact causes of single events, the Earth’s rising average temperatures and the increasing “snapping of temperature from hot to cold” suggest that “larger-scale changes in the climate are playing a part”.

While extreme weather stories will always make headlines, the human propensity to overreact leads to misunderstandings about what is causing the extreme weather, which are further exacerbated by the claims of climate deniers.

“A lot of the trolls I see are the sceptics… it really does detract from the bigger picture,” Duncan says.

“All of a sudden, you’ve got people saying ‘the scientists are either lying, or they’re making it look worse than it is’…There’s no agenda in science – scientists just want to know what’s going on.”

So could wider adoption of the term “global weirding” help people – including climate sceptics – think more rationally the effects of global warming? Perhaps, says Duncan. It’s a colloquialism that shouldn’t replace formal scientific terms, but for people who mistakenly assume “global warming” means “there’ll be no more snow ever again” (as he puts it), weirding is “definitely good enough” as a general catch-all term to explain unusual weather patterns over long periods of time. But “keeping weirding to chit-chat, rather than scientific articles is best,” Duncan jokes.

Whatever phrase is used, it all falls under the very real problem of global warming. Duncan reiterates that addressing the unsustainable amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere is critical.

“Even if we do stop emissions, like we saw during Covid… we still have quite a warm planet compared to what it was centuries ago,” he warns. “Nature has got an amazing restoring force… [but] the future is all about how we decide on how we’re going to limit carbon emissions.”

[See also: “We all struggle with despair”: Naomi Klein on overcoming doomism with climate action]