What Science Says About the Senator Who Used a Snowball to "Disprove" Climate Change


In late February, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) made the amazingly unconvincing argument that the science behind climate change was the product of a hoax because it was "unseasonably cold" outside. To illustrate his point, Inhofe tossed a snowball right onto the Senate floor.


And the quote:

"In case we have forgotten, because we keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record, I ask the chair, you know what this is? It's a snowball. And that's just from outside here. So it's very, very cold out."

Reminder: Inhofe is a grown man who sits as the senior member of the Senate's Committee on Environment and Public Works, not a second grader turning in the worst science project ever.

Inhofe doesn't understand how climate works. Weather is not the same thing as climate, and the fact that it still gets cold every year does not disprove the fact that global average temperatures are increasing at an alarming pace. This NASA-produced visualization shows the reality of global temperature change since 1950:

And here's how NASA projects the globe will look by the end of the century, using warming levels since 1970 as a baseline: 

NASA Center for Climate Simulation / NASA Scientific Visualization Studio

Inhofe can whine all he wants about the snowball some poor intern rolled for him, but the fact is that the globe is getting measurably hotter and will continue to do so if humans keep burning fossil fuels. About 97% of over 12,000 peer-reviewed studies analyzed by Skeptical Science accepted the theory that humans are the primary driver of climate change.

By the way, across the globe in Australia, where it actually is the end of summer right now, scientists are already estimating that the country experienced the second hottest February on record. "The main story is that the weather was very persistently warm, particularly in February, rather than notable hot — or cold — spells," Bureau of Meteorology climatologist Acacia Pepler told The Sydney Morning-Herald. "In particular, we had very warm nights in the city, which is not surprising considering the very warm sea surface temperatures."

The senator is pandering, clueless, or both.

He's also wrong about snow, by the way: A warmer globe will still have winters, occasionally even particularly cold ones. These winters will have snow. Inhofe's snowball is, at best, an anecdote, and as Mother Jones' Chris Mooney points out, "anecdotes are not statistics."

The reality is that even sustained cold snaps are adequately explained by existing climate models that accept the globe is warming. A 2014 study reported in Nature found that cold weather sweeping the northern United States and Canada is likely the result of melting Arctic sea ice's disruptive effect on the northern jet stream. Another study, reported by Nature in February, found that while average snowfall might fall as a whole thanks to climate change, it could actually result in nastier extreme winter weather events concentrated in cold regions.

"For relatively mild regions, we would expect heavy snowfall to become increasingly rare as the climate warms," MIT scientist and study leader Paul O' Gorman told the Boston Globe. "But in colder regions, heavy snowfalls can become more frequent because of increases in the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere or, in some cases, because of changes in the circulation of the atmosphere, such as a shift in position of the storm track."

But something about snowballs, so whatever, insists Inhofe. This isn't the first time he's deployed a particularly lame tactic to deflect the science behind global warming, but it's at least tied in laziness with the time he claimed only God can change the climate.

Why you should care: If this is the top Republican senator on the Senate's main environmental committee doing his best to discuss climate change, then give up hope of the GOP ever admitting that the scientific community is right about the issue. There's just too much willful ignorance in the way. If you want to get really depressed, New York's Jonathan Chait points out that Inhofe's stance on global warming puts him firmly in the Republican mainstream alongside House members like Steve Scalise and 2016 presidential contender Jeb Bush.

The fundamental disconnect between Republicans and climate change can't be understated. Scientific American noted the particularly sarcastic response from colleague Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.):

"You can believe NASA and you can believe what their satellites measure on the planet, or you can believe the senator with the snowball," he quipped. "You can either believe the United States Navy or you can believe the senator with the snowball ... you can believe every single major American scientific society, or you can believe the senator with the snowball."