Climate and weather are closely related, but they are two different things. This has led to some confusion in the media and the general public – if the planet is warming, how can we have a colder than average winter?

Weather is immediate, observable, and affects our day-to-day lives. We have a good idea of weather patterns in the places we live and travel to, and we understand how weather changes with the seasons. Climate is much bigger; it is the general weather pattern of a specific area averaged over time. It gives us a bigger picture of what we can generally expect throughout the year. Ohio has a continental climate, which means we can generally expect to have hot, humid summers and cold winters. We can generally expect a relatively large amount of precipitation throughout the year – but as we know, that doesn’t guarantee that we’ll have a white Christmas. It also means your spring and summer events may get rained out, but unfortunately you can’t predict that too far in advance. Climate can help us predict seasonal weather patterns, but not individual weather events. Neal Degrasse Tyson gives a good visual here:

If weather is always so unpredictable, how do we know that the climate is changing?

Although we have been able to measure temperature since the 17th century, historical records prior to 1880 are too sparse to use direct measurements. The records we do have show a general warming trend – but how do we know that temperatures over the past 150 years are any warmer than they were before?

Paleoclimatologists are able to gather data from “proxy records” to reconstruct climate conditions from the past. While these are not direct measurements, information gathered from tree rings, soil cores, ice cores, fossil pollen, coral, and even cave formations can be used to build a picture. These records are compared to each other to verify their accuracy, then compared to today’s conditions. For example, air bubbles trapped deep in glacial ice preserve the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere from up to 800,000 years ago! From this, we can see that carbon dioxide levels are far higher than they have been since humans came into existence. Deep sea sediment tells us that it has been millions of years since carbon dioxide levels were as high as they are today.

Carbon dioxide (along with methane, nitrous oxide, and water vapor) acts as an atmospheric blanket. The sun’s radiation can get in through the atmosphere, where it is absorbed by the Earth’s surface. The energy that is reflected back, however, can’t escape. This balance is what allows life to exist on Earth – without some greenhouse gasses, the planet would be too cold to sustain life. There is natural fluctuation that occurs over time – but the rate of increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since 1850 is unprecedented. Scientists use historical records, proxy data, and computer models to investigate different scenarios. Through this process, we are able to see that the rate of carbon dioxide increase (and the rate of warming) would not be possible without the human burning of fossil fuels over the past 150 years.

Reducing fossil fuel emissions at home – and saving money!

Climate scientists and environmental activists have been encouraging governments and individuals to move away from fossil fuels for years. Luckily, the technology needed to provide affordable alternatives has drastically improved over the years. Not only that, it has actually become more affordable in the long run to power your home with solar than with fossil fuels. While there are inevitable costs to install solar on your home, offsetting some or all of your utility usage can save thousands of dollars over the years (this, of course, varies based on your utility’s rates and the size of the solar electric system installed).

The average annual household electricity consumption in the US was 10,715 kilowatt hours in 2020, according to the US Energy Information Administration. This is the equivalent of driving one gasoline-powered car for one year, and takes 5128 pounds of coal to produce. In contrast, using solar to provide the same amount of energy for one year is equivalent to driving a car for just three weeks (or however long it takes you to go through 31.6 gallons of gas). The National Renewable Energy Laboratory performed a life cycle analysis of solar panels, wind turbines, coal, and natural gas (resource extraction, manufacturing, transportation, installation, and use) and found that solar panels are 20 times more efficient than coal, and 10 times more efficient than natural gas… and wind has us beat at 80 times more efficient than coal!