The polar vortex struck Manhattan and with it—well, I will spare the reader the poignant evocations of coldness, the “It’s Cold Outside!” piece being second only to the “Hey! It’s Snowing!” one as the nadir of what used to be called feature journalism. But I will confess that I delight in the cold, having grown up in Canada and having written a book in praise of winter, and I especially relish the clarity of the air these nights in midtown Manhattan. (“Why is the air so much clearer and crisper on cold nights than warmer ones?” someone wondered the other evening. The answer that I guessed—that there’s less moisture in it—turns out to be more or less correct.) If you have a Russian hat, an eye for effects, and access to a warm interior nearby, the crisp lines of projected light, crossing from tower to tower in midtown, have been ravishing all week. That doesn’t make it less cold, of course.
There is an interesting line of social-science research that suggests cold weather is actually a stimulant to civic energy: people in hot-weather towns tend to disappear from the streets when it’s too hot, while in cold-weather towns they get dressed up warmly and act out, stamping their feet and huffing their breath and banging their arms together, doing that whole “I’m cold!” bit. Winter cities tend to thrive as urban centers—places where people walk and meet and bump into each other, as city people should—in ways that hyper-hot cities don’t. Walk around icy Montreal in mid-winter, and everybody’s on the street or dipping down below it to the vast crowded pedestrian underground; try walking around Dallas at the height of summer, and it looks like everybody ran out, one step ahead of the zombies.
No condition, not even cold air, can remain non-politicized these days, and so at Fox News and elsewhere they've been talking up the polar vortex as evidence that this global warming thing is just one more liberal plot. “Al Gore left a message for you,” one of the Fox swept-foreheads kept saying to another the other morning, meaning, “See, Al Gore and the liberals said it was getting hotter, and here it is—cold.” It’s not an entirely unreasonable question. Given that global warming is, by definition, global—i.e. planetary—and, apparently, urgent, it wouldn’t seem crazy to think that it ought always to be in evidence.
The explanation reminds us of an essential, if painful, fact: strong scientific theories are, whatever we might like to think, more often counterintuitive than self-evident. We teach science, we talk science, as though it were the triumph of the self-evident over the obscure, the empirical over the occult. This is a good propaganda technique—“Just look with your own eyes!” we say—until it isn’t. Five hundred years after Copernicus, it sure still looks as if the sun is going around the earth. The evidence for global warming is not, or not primarily, experiential. It is cumulative, statistical, and inferential—just like the evidence for biological evolution, ever-improving I.Q.s, and the Higgs boson. Cold days don’t disprove it, and hot spells in summer don’t show it’s true either. It first has to be grasped as an abstract concept, albeit one with real and scary effects. The charts that show a relentlessly hotter planet are averaging out many ups and many downs—and the claim that this trend is “anthropogenic,” or man-made, is in part inferential, though extremely strong.
Newt Gingrich pooh-poohs liberal panic by way of citing his own work as an “amateur paleontologist” without quite realizing that the scientific logic that persuades us of global warming is exactly the same as that which persuades us of the size and shape, not to mention the existence, of dinosaurs. We have very few complete skeletons, but from the many bones and parts, found at various strata, we can deduce the whole story. If you believe that dinosaurs of many varieties and complicated kinships once existed, and that a comet or asteroid helped make them disappear—an entirely inferential notion—then you ought to put your money on the idea that the planet is getting hotter and that we’re making it happen.
If, indeed, experiential evidence is wanted, it might be found up there in my natal far north, where this whole polar vortex thing is a cause of mordant laughter, since what they are experiencing, and have been for many years now, might be called the “Manhattan inflow.” The evidence of global warming in the fragile ecosystem of the Arctic is overwhelming, and frightening to anyone who reads about it, much less sees it first hand. As I enumerate in “Winter,” the tree line behind which winter has always hidden moves farther and farther north each year, so that it seems likely there will be spruce trees on Arctic islands in the next twenty years. First Nations people are already being evacuated from old coastal settlements; the expectation now is that the Arctic will be seasonally free of ice not in fifty years, as people once feared, but in something more like ten years. Even polar bears have turned to cannibalism as their natural prey disappears. It’s really happening. (And in some parts of the world, as we’re often reminded, climate change means more extreme weather and disruption, not just simple warming. It might even make very cold days in New York City.)
There is a larger issue, though, which all sane liberals should recognize, and it is that, in the past, many a planet-devouring wolf has indeed been called out, only to never actually appear: the population bomb never went off; peak oil has not been reached—or, at least, the energy crisis seems to have abated. What makes this wolf different is the issue of externalities—problems that don’t respond to market forces because the people who suffer the effects are not the same as the people whose transactions cause them. As Paul Sabin, whose book “The Bet” covers the famous wager between the pessimist Paul Ehrlich and the economist Julian Simon over the earth’s future, has pointed out, those previous environmental crises, broadly so called, were averted through “a response to prices, market innovation, the discovery of new resources, new techniques for extracting them, all of that.… We’re a little stuck right now in the public debate on climate, with people actively refusing to believe that there is a problem.” Human ingenuity, like the Green Revolution, or else human calculation of utility (prosperity makes people have fewer kids) helped hold those past wolves at bay. The utility of countering global warming, however, is more abstract: that my using less air conditioning this summer will mean that my grandkids won’t have to use far more, impossibly more, in the future is a remote function, hard to grasp. You don’t have to buy that every wolf will eat you to believe that this one might.
Of course, as George Carlin used to say, the planet will be fine; it’s we who are at risk. And when Keynes said that in the long run we’re all dead, his point was that that's no comfort. If we value our own civilization—including, it must be said by winter-lovers, some of those coastal, hot-weather cities—and want to minimize the suffering of those who share it with us, we need to do something to keep the cold, clear nights coming.