Whither the Political Weather in Washington?

Published on: 15:08PM Feb 12, 2010

First, this isn’t a post about climate change, and whether the weather is affected by global warming…not directly, anyway.  What it is about is the simple fact that many political trends – the issues of the day that get talked about on the nightly news by reporters standing in front of the Capitol – are driven purely by anecdotes.  By that, I mean that often what sets the agenda in Washington, particularly in Congress, is one or two stories or events.  Not 100 or 1000 of them, but just a few. 

Examples:  one erstwhile shoe bomber, Richard Reid, means that now we all have to take our shoes off and scan them at airports. The underwear bomber from December will certainly hasten the need to install full body scan machines.  Complaints about the MMR vaccine being linked to autism led to the end of the use of thimerosal in vaccines.  The peanut food safety scare last year helped prompt the creation of a new food safety bill.   What these all have in common is that one or two incidents, mostly isolated and perhaps not even related, have been the force, the tipping point, behind significant policy decisions.

Which brings me to the weather.  As has been widely reported, Washington, DC, has in the past week received more than 30 inches of snow, in two blizzardy installments.  We’ve now had more snow this winter than in the more than 120 years of weather recording in Washington. 

So it is no coincidence that efforts to address climate change, already on the ropes since last year, are now most likely to be literally buried under the tundra.  It was good political theater, the building of an igloo near the Capitol Grounds by Sen. Jim Inhofe’s family, to mock former Sen. Al Gore’s global warming crusade.  That snow job is more than just sarcastic humor; it’s a challenge to those who want to impose carbon taxes to stop the planet from heating, even while the rest of Washington has run out of milk, salt and shovels. 

Which brings me to the point:  of course, the large and lingering debate about climate change isn’t going to melt away when the snow leaves the Capitol.  It’s just that it becomes much harder to build a consensus about too much heat, when the winter is way too cold and snowy.  Now, some will say weather has nothing to do with climate change, and all this snow in Washington means nothing.  But a lot of the climate change debate has been about the significance of selected events.  What’s the point of talking about ice caps and polar bears as evidence of a warmer climate, if other anecdotal examples of colder weather don’t also count for something?  The scandal over the East Anglia University climate change emails shows that data and examples, used (or not used) selectively, say a lot more about politics than science.

It’s like Joseph Stalin said:  one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.  People react to the former, and shrug at the latter.  36 inches of snow is also a statistic, but if you’ve blown out your back from too much shoveling, and you’re a member of Congress, do you really want to continue digging into the climate change issue?