On Sunday, President Trump uttered one of the most widely held misconceptions about weather and climate change: Weather forecasters can’t get it right and, therefore, we can’t say anything about climate change.
The claim, used to justify leaving the Paris climate agreement, is demonstrably wrong and has been debunked repeatedly. The president should know better.
Politico reported that the remarks were made after a round of golf at Trump National on Sunday. Its account:
OVERHEARD AT TRUMP NATIONAL: Trump discussing his decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement over lunch after playing a round of golf Sunday. Trump’s post-Paris analysis: they can’t even get the weather report right, so how come they think they can get that right?
The record shows weather forecasts are quite accurate and have improved markedly in recent decades.
Trump’s shot at forecasters, even if in jest, wrongly denigrates the talented men and women of the National Weather Service, which he oversees. While less direct, the comments are reminiscent of those made by North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jung Un, who scolded his own country’s forecasters in 2014.
It is not the first time Trump has taken a jab at forecasters. Before the major winter storm that ravaged the East Coast in March, Trump said: “Let’s hope it’s not going to be as bad as some people are predicting. Usually it isn’t.”
See also these tweets from the last few years:
As usual, the "storm of the century" was not nearly as bad as forecast. What a waste of time, energy and money!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 27, 2015
As usual, the weather people got it wrong in Tampa. They just look for headlines & ratings!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 28, 2012
The Associated Press’s Seth Borenstein published an excellent article detailing some of the strides made in weather prediction last Thursday. It’s as if he anticipated Trump’s comments before they were made:
Make fun of the weatherman if you want but modern forecasts have quietly, by degrees, become much better.
Meteorologists are now as good with their five-day forecasts as they were with their three-day forecasts in 2005. Both government and private weather forecasting companies are approaching the point where they get tomorrow’s high temperature right nearly 80 percent of the time. It was 66 percent 11 years ago, according to ForecastWatch, a private firm that rates accuracy of weather forecasts.
If Trump wants additional detail on the state of weather forecasting, I’d suggest he sit down with Louis Uccellini, director of Weather Service, for a briefing and tour its state of the art NOAA Center for Weather and Climate Prediction Center in College Park, Md., for starters. He might also tour the National Hurricane Center, like his predecessor.
As for Trump’s claim that errors in weather forecasting mean we can’t say how the climate will change, that simply demonstrates a misunderstanding about the fundamental differences in these types of prediction. The website Climate Communication has a good explanation:
Weather is individual, day-to-day atmospheric events; climate is the statistical average of those events. Weather is short-term and chaotic and is thus inherently unpredictable beyond a few days. Climate is long-term average weather and is controlled by larger forces, such as the composition of the atmosphere, and is thus more predictable on longer time scales.
Here’s an analogy that businessman Trump might appreciate. We may have difficulty forecasting whether the stock market will go up or down in the short term. But we know corporations are always striving to boost earnings, and that acts as the key force that causes the market to go up in the long run. Similarly, the addition of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere is the key “force” that scientists know will increase the planet’s temperature in future decades.
Trump’s statements on weather and climate reveal that he has a troubling knowledge deficit on these issues. Worse, he has yet to appoint a science adviser to help better inform him.
He might do our nation and the world some good if he gets up to speed.