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  • Writer's pictureSecond Opinion Magazine

The Winter of Our Discontent

by James E. Boulter, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Director, Watershed Institute for Collaborative Environmental Studies University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire

We have just emerged from one of the coldest winter some of us have ever experienced.1 There was talk about whether those arctic blasts, felt as far south as Florida, finally signified the end of the raging battle of public opinion over the validity of climate change. Some felt that the cold weather they experienced couldn’t possibly be consistent with global warming as they understood it, while others exploited it to reinforce their conclusion that human-induced climate change was a fraudulent hoax.2

Meanwhile, many accepted explanations of the shifting polar vortex as another example in a growing list of extreme weather events, escalating their sense of a changing climate.

So which is it?

It is important to recognize that weather is necessarily personal—something we experience, and thus inherently local. For example, while we froze in the Upper Midwest, high temperatures set records along the west coast of North America all the way up to the northern slope of Alaska.3

Even as severe droughts threaten California,4 record-breaking rains flooded England5 and record-breaking high temperatures scorched Australia. In contrast, climate is continental or global in scale—we measure it by means of satellites or extensive networks of monitoring stations; those data indicate that global average temperature for January was the fourth highest on record, more than 2°F higher than the twentieth century average over land.6 In order to quantify the increase in thermal energy of the planet resulting from increased concentrations of greenhouse gases, it is necessary include not only measurements made on land, but also those at sea, and below the ocean surface.7 And finally, it is crucial to focus on long-term changes because climate varies over decades, never seasons.

So the unsatisfying answer is, “neither—not from a single winter in any one part of the world.” But we can ask other questions that result in a resounding, “Yes; human activities (primarily extraction and burning of fossil fuels) have substantially warmed the lower atmosphere and the upper ocean.”8 This has been felt most acutely and most notably in the northern polar region, where we have observed the dramatic loss of sea ice and land-based glaciers, as visualized in James Balog’s compelling 2012 documentary, Chasing Ice.9

But is there any link between climate change and this extraordinarily cold winter?

It turns out that there’s a plausible and worrying connection. The polar vortex, a well-established annual phenomenon in both hemispheres, forms around the arctic after the sun goes down at the winter solstice. As the air cools and sinks, it begins to rotate like a spinning top. The strength of the vortex is determined by the difference in temperature between the pole and the “mid-latitudes.” Decrease that difference by disproportionately warming the poles, and the top begins to slow its rotation. For the toy as well as the vortex, that leads to reduced stability as it wobbles and eventually falls over. This time, it fell right on North America, a rare although not unheard-of weather pattern.10

But warming poles mean much more to us than a particularly harsh winter. Much clearer connections can be drawn to a range of effects that amplify the warming directly caused by human emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. For instance, as the bright ice and snow of the far north become less extensive, the planet’s darkened surface absorbs still more light energy, leading to still-faster warming and melting.11 And as vast regions of permafrost thaw and “methane clathrates” beneath the Arctic Ocean begin to break down, both release additional greenhouse gases.12

Some of you may worry about this or other trends in the global climate record; however, I’m sorry to say that chances are, you’re probably less worried than the scientists who study climate change!13 Most of us who share concerns for the climate future of the planet suffer from a sense of futility leading to apathy or may feel overwhelmed to the point of paralysis. I’ve given many talks on the science and anticipated impacts of climate change over the past fifteen years or so, giving what I felt to be impassioned presentations about dispassionate numbers and graphs. As a result, I believe that I’ve raised awareness, and maybe also concerns and fears, but probably not many hopes.

What are concerned citizens to believe and how are we to act in the face of an issue of such magnitude?

Recently I’ve discovered a vital, potent source of hope – a potential remedy to that apathy and paralysis. Like Dr. James Hansen,14 the preeminent climate scientist who first testified before Congress about the dangers of human-caused global warming twenty-five years ago; like former Republican representative from South Carolina, Bob Inglis;15 like George Schultz, former Secretary of State to President Reagan;16 and—yes—like former Vice President and climate activist Al Gore,17 I have become an advocate for a market-based, “fee-and-dividend” solution to cut fossil fuel-related carbon emissions, and forestall the most serious climate outcomes.

What is fee-and-dividend and why should it work?

More than 97 percent of scientists who publish in related fields agree that climate change is happening and primarily caused by human activity;18 similarly, the consensus view of greater than 90 percent of economists across the ideological spectrum is that the most effective way to reduce fossil fuel use and the associated carbon dioxide emissions is by imposing a tax on carbon.19 This may also be described as a “fee and dividend” policy. The advantages to this approach are too numerous to list in this article, but include three key characteristics:20

? Implementation is rapid, simple and efficient, working by means of market forces rather than complex regulatory structures and needing to be imposed at fewer than 1000 points throughout the economy—wherever fossil fuels are extracted or imported. ? The fee would be “revenue neutral,” preventing any substantial increase in the size of government while protecting he most vulnerable people from resulting increases to goods and services by refunding the entire amount collected as an annual dividend. ? It is highly effective, imposing an initial cost of $15 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions and increasing by $10 per ton per year. This provides a steadily increasing price that discourages fossil fuel use while giving people and industries the time and resources to change. By extension, it incentivizes development and implementation of renewable and efficient energy technologies.

These characteristics are specifically intended to appeal to a wide range of legislators, both Democrat and Republican, so that such legislation has a better chance of passage, while retaining its effectiveness.

Is there any good news?

Yes—science can refine our understanding of causes and attributions and improve predictions of future climate scenarios. Better still, it may also provide exciting new technologies for improved energy efficiency and renewable energy generation, which may provide many people hope.21 However, these potential solutions are often slow or entirely unable to enter the market where they can be effective. Why is this? Consider that the full cost fossil fuels is never paid by the industry, at the pump, or on our energy bill; rather, it is assessed in increased healthcare costs and poor health outcomes, experienced in environmental damage, global insecurity and conflict, and transferred to our children and grandchildren.22 If that weren’t enough, greener, cleaner energy alternatives simply cannot compete with established, mature technologies and energy sources whose dominance is reinforced by existing cultural expectations, subsidies, business models, power structures, and infrastructural investments.23 In other words, the playing field is uneven now but this strategy is a way to right it. And by doing this, individuals, families, governments, businesses and industries will be empowered to make changes in how they use and invest in energy that will help to avoid the worst impacts of a changing climate.

If this proposed solution also gives you hope, or if you’re interested to learn how a non-partisan organization, comprised almost exclusively of volunteers from across the continent and beyond, seeks to create the political will for a stable climate, visit our website at

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