Rush Limbaugh, global warming and our weather

Rush Limbaugh sees the reporting of the heat index as a piece of government propaganda designed to convince people that it is hotter than it actually is.
REUTERS/Micah Walter
Rush Limbaugh sees the reporting of the heat index as a piece of government propaganda designed to convince people that it is hotter than it actually is.

Last month we set a record for the highest dew point ever recorded at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Chicago recorded the very same thing. Yesterday, the news came that there is more land in the United States in extreme drought than in the history of the country. And it has been wet, too. In Alexandria, for instance, folks can’t raise their docks any higher, so many people are simply pulling them out. Of course, Australia and Pakistan have seen more rain in the last five months than they’ve seen in their history. The Horn of Africa is in a drought worse than the one currently hammering Texas.

Is this just weather? Or, is it climate?

The reason I ask is to turn the question on its head. I hear from a lot of global warming skeptics and deniers. I listen to a lot of conservative radio, and I often hear riffs on the same melody. I usually hear it in the when the weather is cool or when Atlanta or Washington, D.C., see snowfall. Those local events rarely produce a statistical blip on the summary of the continued warming of our whole planet, but the deniers say, “Where is your global warming, now?”

Over the past two or three decades, the scientists have been careful in pointing out that “single weather events can’t be attributed to global warming.” It is, after all, climate change we are talking about and not weather change. To be clear, the scientists have repeated that line whether people were asking about hot, cold, wet or dry weather.

But even scientists are beginning to change their minds about what we are witnessing through our windows. These extreme events, taken together, may be a sign of things to come. The chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Rajendra Pachauri, has said, “…climate change and its impacts are not off in the future, but are here and now.”

There are two ways to explain what is happening. One is scientific and the other is political. You are familiar with the political arguments, but let me cite one of the most recent. A couple of weeks ago, during the most intense part of this year’s summer heat wave that settled across the upper United States, TV weather people, newspaper writers and internet reporters were telling folks what the air temperature would actually feel like. They were reporting the “heat index.” It was a formula developed in 1978 that combines relative humidity with the temperature at any given place and point in time, and the result is what the inventor called the “humiture.” The National Weather Service adopted the heat index a year later. It isn’t much different than our much beloved wind-chill factor — the combining of temperature and wind to create a new temperature that tells us how cold it will “feel.”

Limbaugh rant
During this last heat wave, Rush Limbaugh began to meltdown a little on his radio show. He saw the reporting of the heat index, a number usually higher than the actual temperature, as a piece of government propaganda designed to convince people that it was hotter than it actually was. You can find the always entertaining Limbaugh rant below.

I am much obliged to Dr. Joseph Romm at Climate Progress for pointing out that Limbaugh told listeners that the government was “playing games with us on this heat wave, again.”

Thank goodness we have Rush Limbaugh to give us a coolheaded response to killing heat.

On the other side of the ledger is science, and some of its best practitioners are doing the heavy lifting required to establish or refute any links between today’s very odd weather systems and rising global temperatures due to increased CO2 in the atmosphere. If you are interested in getting an up close look at that work, you can visit a three-part series produced for Scientific American by John Carey here, here and here.
Dr. Kevin Trenberth is head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the lead author of the 2001 and 2007 IPCC Scientific Assessment. He spends a lot of his time trying to tease out what weather events are naturally occurring and part of the planet’s normal background noise, and what events are exacerbated by global warming.

Trenberth says that the extreme drying like those happening in Texas and the Horn of Africa happens from time to time. But the intensity and duration of these naturally occurring events is made worse by global warming. “Higher air temperatures, essentially, suck the moisture out of the soil. Warmer air can hold more moisture. This further dries out the soil, but moistens the atmosphere…the result is longer lasting and more intense droughts.”

Heavy rain falls, flooding and monsoons in India and China are seen by a growing segment of the climate science community as examples of the same problem. All the moisture being sucked up out of the earth and oceans ends up circulating around the planet, and what goes up, must come down. Eventually the moisture drops out of the atmosphere as rain, sleet and snow. More and more these days, it is coming down in greater amounts, and because Mother Nature is sometimes fickle, it comes down exactly where it isn’t needed.

Paul Douglas explains
Americans get their scientific information (and this is no joke) primarily from television weather casters. Most TV weather folks aren’t prepared to talk about long-range climate realities as they focus their attention on the five-day outlook. An exception is Paul Douglas, formerly of KARE-TV and WCCO-TV, he is now the head of WeatherNation. He says: “One instrument playing out of tune would be noise and insignificant. We have an entire global orchestra playing out of tune with all these weather extremes happening simultaneously. At some point you have to recognize that this is not your grandfather’s weather system. I’m seeing things I’ve never seen before.”

Paul Douglas
Paul Douglas

Then he adds, “Just last month, in July, we had 2,676 records broken. The most ever. The hottest in Washington, D.C., since 1871. There is more moisture in the atmosphere than we’ve ever seen before.”

I asked Paul what more moisture means to our weather. “It means a greater potential for extreme events. One study showed that extreme precipitation events increased 24 percent in the United States between 1948 and 2006. That’s snow, as well as rain.”

Then, I ask, why aren’t TV meteorologists telling folks these facts? Douglas says: “My colleagues in the weather forecasting business are skeptics when it comes to climate models. We have been burned so many times on the short-term weather models that they find it hard to accept climate models that stretch out 30 years. What they don’t understand is that they are two entirely different sciences.”

Douglas: “Thirty years ago, the climate scientists told us what to expect with global warming. We are seeing it now.”

Limbaugh: “They [the government] are playing games with us.”

For years I’ve been telling people to avoid making assumptions about global warming by simply looking out one’s window. It was good advice back then. It is not anymore.

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Comments (30)

  1. Submitted by Jim Halonen on 08/02/2011 - 10:20 am.

    The polar bear man just got suspended for playing fast and loose with the facts. The sea level reporting office just got busted for fudging their numbers. When the facts don’t support the argument, tweak them – like the golfer who uses the ‘foot wedge’ to get a better lie.

    I just did a driving trip out west. Everybody should do that at least once. It occurs to you how small and insignificant mankind is to the globe.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/02/2011 - 10:38 am.

    Good piece, Don…

    Paul Douglas is the most lucid meteorologist I’ve come across. It’s too bad his blog and commentary aren’t a regular part of the local TV scene any more, because I don’t doubt you’re correct about where most people get their science information, not to mention other information. Scary, but probably true, and it makes the utter failure of network television to tell “big” and important stories in depth – like climate change, the growing wealth disparity, the achievement gap in schools – all the more depressing. Instead, we get pablum about the overpaid athlete who spends a photo-op hour at a local food bank or homeless shelter.

    I have to argue with one item, however. Instead of “…always entertaining,” my bias is that Rush Limbaugh is virtually never entertaining. He may be a media “personality,” but he’s also merely an overweight demagogue.

  3. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 08/02/2011 - 10:39 am.

    #1 – Did you see that the world population is about to hit Six Billion? World population has doubled since 1960.

  4. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/02/2011 - 11:00 am.

    While the coincidence of unusual weather around the world may be more than simply statistical coincidence, we don’t yet have the statistical power to link them without question to global climate change.

    I think the greater, and more important challenge than pointing out that things are getting warmer is to convince the naysayers that it doesn’t matter if we’re at fault or not. Making changes to try to negate our impact will not hurt, and may be beneficial not only climatalogically and environmentally, but economically. Relying on stagnant technology (that is, the same things we’ve been using for decades and the naysayers want us to continue to use) will do us no good economically. Our greatest economic growth has always been during times of technological advance. Why not embrace this opportunity to make a technological advance? It’s not like our economy couldn’t use a boost. And if it makes the environmental future of our descendants better, that would be an understated bonus.

    Why is that the more difficult challenge? It seems perfectly logical, doesn’t it? Why should it be so hard to convince the naysayers? Because it’s not a matter of convincing the masses on their own. The people leading the political charge against the existence of global climate change are the ones that make the most money off of the current technology. Investors are no longer willing to take risks on new technology, yet they expect the same returns on both the old technology and the new technology despite the fact that they won’t put any money into it. So, the old technology is a safe monetary bet, while the new technology takes even longer to take off, making less money less quickly.

    And too many people are willing to listen (or at least are paid to listen) to those with a monetary stake than think independently and logically.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/02/2011 - 11:34 am.

    Limbaugh has no talent, there’s nothing that entertaining about him, a minute spent listening to him is a minute of your life you’ll never get back. Imagine this article without him… see, isn’t that better?

  6. Submitted by Eric T on 08/02/2011 - 11:53 am.

    Jim Halonen says:
    “I just did a driving trip out west. Everybody should do that at least once. It occurs to you how small and insignificant mankind is to the globe.”

    That’s not very scientific. If you hang out in LA, during rush hour, you might have a different opinion. Carbon emissions integrate over time, but your impressions do not.

  7. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 08/02/2011 - 12:02 pm.

    Count on Rush Limbaugh to bring the heat – but no light!

    All the talk on all aspects of climate and weather will have absolutely no effect whatsoever on either the climate or the weather, only perhaps on what people think.

    What is really behind all this dispute? Does it actually have anything to do with climate or weather?

  8. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 08/02/2011 - 12:08 pm.

    This is great, but it’s important to use precise language that can’t be intentionally misconstrued. Specifically, this is key: “These extreme events, taken together”. The weather events, taken together, constitute “climate”, and it’s essential that we’re talking about global data over many years, not a one-off snow storm in DC.

  9. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/02/2011 - 12:10 pm.

    Jim (#1): read the articles related those two issues:

    Polar bears–the question about the researcher is whether he exaggerated or misrepresented the number of polar bears drowning because of the longer swim between the remaining ice fields. The issue, in no way, refutes the fact of far less ice or rising arctic temperatures.

    Sea level rise–the issue is HOW MUCH the sea levels will rise. Studies, models and predictions differ, and that is where the debate is, but there is no refutation of the fact that more melting ice will result in higher water levels.

    It is pretty pathetic when someone cannot be bothered to actually read about these “controversies” and find out what the issues are, rather than being lead by the nose.

  10. Submitted by Blakely LaCroix on 08/02/2011 - 12:11 pm.

    Three comments:
    (1) I find that people’s response to the global warming issue depends on how the question is framed. If told global temperatures were rising because of a natural change, such as an increase in the solar flux, people seem more willing to acknowledge that something should be done. But if told that global temperatures are rising due to human activity, the response changes. No one wants to admit that they might be part of the problem.

    (2)It takes 80 times the heat to melt a block of ice compared to the same amount of water. That melting ice is helping keep the temperature rise down. If you think it is hot now, wait until all the ice caps have melted.

    (3)It has been said that people really do not want to Save the Earth, but rather Save the Holocene.

  11. Submitted by Rich Crose on 08/02/2011 - 01:06 pm.

    What will the weather be like with six billion rotting corpses polluting the atmosphere?

    Ask the six legged frogs.

    I’ll bet the dinosaurs had a Rush Limbaugh too.

  12. Submitted by Lance Groth on 08/02/2011 - 01:33 pm.

    Re this comment in #1: “how small and insignificant mankind is to the globe”

    This is an example of how the denialists blow smoke. The correct formulation would be, “how small and insignificant a man is …” Sure, the world looks big from the perspective of an individual. So what? That is quite a different thing than the impact of 7 billion humans and their combined activity in consuming space/habitat, industrial activity and related pollution, energy consumption, agriculture and exploitation of the oceans, etc.

    If you want to see the impact of “mankind” on the natural environment, try traveling to China or southeast Asia. The industrial activity and urbanization is stunning, and frightening. Or, ask the astronauts, who see the Earth from space. Ask them how it has changed since manned spaceflight first began. What they have seen concerns them greatly, and Earth looks very much smaller and more fragile from orbit.

    Of course, if you’re old enough to remember the 60’s, 70’s, or earlier, you don’t need weather records and statistics to know that the climate is changing radically. You need merely reflect on what it was like back then. I’m that old, and the winters we have now are nothing like the winters we had back then.

    Thanks, Don, for another outstanding story. Although I’m essentially in despair over what we are doing to our only home (to be vulgar, you’ve heard the phrase, “you don’t, er, “crap” where you eat” – we’re crapping all over the place like a dysentery patient), what I find most offensive is the willful ignorance of those who refuse to acknowledge the damage we are doing. I must say, if the majority of us are too dumb, too obtuse or too politically cynical to recognize and deal with the evidence of the scientific community and/or the evidence of their own senses, then we deserve what will happen to us.

    The Earth doesn’t care about politics or human pig-headedness. It is a system of inputs, processes and outputs. When you change the inputs as radically as we are, you had better believe the processes and outputs will respond. The natural system will respond the way it must, as influenced by its own cycles and our meddling, and that is when all of us, Mr. Halonen included, will understand just how insignificant we are in the face of rapid climate change.

    Humans like to think of themselves as intelligent, but I think rather that we are clever. Clever primates with tool-using hands. An intelligent species would not so damage it’s only home. An intelligent species (some of whom like to make speeches about “family values”) would not pass along a degraded world to its children and grandchildren. An intelligent species would not sell its future for short-term political gain or because they want a lavish lifestyle. Clever, tool-using primates would, whose ability to affect their environment outstrips their wisdom, but not a truly intelligent species.

    Sadly, we are already past the point of no return. Some of us will be able to say “we told you so”, but I’m afraid that will be little comfort as this particular skein unwinds.

    Oh, and Limbaugh is an idiot.

  13. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 08/02/2011 - 01:55 pm.

    “I just did a driving trip out west. Everybody should do that at least once. It occurs to you how small and insignificant mankind is to the globe. ”

    Wow. Well, with data like that, I suppose the armies of scientists should just wrap it up and head home.

  14. Submitted by Marcia Brekke on 08/02/2011 - 03:10 pm.

    #12. I agree with every word except the last sentence. I think Limbaugh is very intelligent and gets paid huge amounts of money to say anything the folks who pay him the “big bucks” want him to say. Thus, they can continue to go their merry and destructive ways, urging us to use more oil, coal, combustion engines, you name it, without the populace realizing the real results of those activities, even as we’re choking on fumes and paying enormously to keep the insanity going. George W put it clearly when confronted with a question about a future problem, when he said with his usual smirk, “I’ll be dead by then.”

  15. Submitted by Gregory Lang on 08/02/2011 - 03:11 pm.

    The old “dew point” seemed to work fine.

    Could our record high dew points/heat index be caused by the fifteen million acres of corn that needs to be grown for ethanol? I was south of the Twin Cites last week. I’ve never seen corn so densely planted before.

  16. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 08/02/2011 - 03:28 pm.

    No need to fear the corn, Gregory.

  17. Submitted by Lance Groth on 08/02/2011 - 03:32 pm.

    @Marcia – You’re right, of course. I was thinking of Franken’s book, I guess, but Limbaugh isn’t really an idiot. He’s a liar who has sold his soul.

  18. Submitted by Tom Clark on 08/02/2011 - 04:05 pm.

    I wouldn’t attribute the record dew point temperatures to corn as much as the amount of rainfall that’s fallen in Minnesota this summer, and that after a snowy winter followed by a wet spring. There’s just a lot of moisture out there, period.

  19. Submitted by Dale Hoogeveen on 08/02/2011 - 04:53 pm.

    The corn is more densely planted than in the past, but it could not be were the water to feed the plants not there in the first place. Head southwest from Minneapolis toward Sioux Falls and you will see huge amounts of available water. I have never seen so much so late in the summer. The corn will return a lot of the water it needs to the atmosphere in the form of humidity, but adequate soil moisture has to be there first.

  20. Submitted by will lynott on 08/02/2011 - 07:04 pm.

    Don, how’s that debate between legislator/ideologue Jungbauer and Professor Abraham coming? I really want to see that debate.


  21. Submitted by Lance Groth on 08/02/2011 - 07:46 pm.

    One crucial point I neglected to mention in my diatribe, but which I did post in response to another Shelby article, is that the fundamental cause underlying all of our other problems of energy consumption, pollution, anthropogenic global warming, habitat loss, destruction of the ocean biosphere, the financial meltdown, etc., is overpopulation.

    The Earth cannot sustainably support 7 billion (headed for 9+ billion) humans, all desiring an affluent lifestyle; it’s just as simple as that.

    I do not believe these other problems are soluble so long as we continue to overrun the Earth like bacteria in a petri dish. We’re not going to deliberately kill off 5 billion people to fix the situation, nor can we even agree to reproduce below the rate of replacement until attrition reduces the population to a sustainable level, so there you are.

    We had a chance, if we had gotten serious about clean, alternative energy after the 70’s energy crisis, but we did nothing and still have done nothing, and now it is far too late. G. W. Bush’s greatest failure is not anything he did, but what he failed to do: he failed to use 9/11 as a reason to launch a Marshall Plan for energy independence based on clean, renewable sources. Obama, too, has failed to lead on this – a great disappointment.

    We can and should still take all the mitigation steps that politics will allow to perhaps salvage something, but it won’t be enough. Let the denialists rave and have their fun, it makes no difference. Alea iacta est. Can you hear it tumbling?

  22. Submitted by Tim Larson on 08/02/2011 - 09:38 pm.


    Please read another take on Dr.Trenberth.

    The only thing he tried to “tease out” is cash.

  23. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 08/02/2011 - 11:23 pm.

    Greg (#15), the corn used for ethanol does contribute to climate change, which is why most environmentalists have long opposed corn ethanol. Corn ethanol is advertised as green, but its just greenwashing. In addition to creating more emissions than gas when the manufacturing process is considered, the process has numerous other side effects (run-off, aquifer depletion) that are harmful to the environment. Robert (#16) is wrong – you do need to fear the corn. Well, if you care about the environment and believe the science on climate change you need to fear the corn.

  24. Submitted by Jim Halonen on 08/03/2011 - 11:27 am.

    What if I were to follow all our past and current doom and gloomers. Ehrlich’s starvation predictions turned out to be obsesity problems instead, the mid 70’s had the ice age coming back, the 80’s had acid rain, the 90’s had the bird flu, currently it’s global warming, next decade it will be something else, etc… just a bunch a blah blah blah.

  25. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 08/03/2011 - 11:35 am.

    Tim (#22) what your links show is that there is dissent among climate scientists about the extent and manfifestations of climate change. That isn’t a secret, nor is it a problem for anyone concerned about climate change. Christopher Landsea, who quit because he disagreed with Trembath, had this to say:

    “In an interview on PBS, Christopher Landsea said “we certainly see substantial warming in the ocean and atmosphere over the last several decades on the order of a degree Fahrenheit, and I have no doubt a portion of that, at least, is due to greenhouse warming. The question is whether we’re seeing any real increases in the hurricane activity.” He went on to say “with the Atlantic hurricanes in particular, they’re due to changes both in the ocean as well as the atmosphere. Just changing the ocean where it’s a little bit warmer isn’t sufficient.” As for climate change affecting hurricane strength, Landsea said that global warming theories and numerical modeling suggest only that “hurricanes like Katrina and Rita may have been stronger due to global warming but maybe by one or two miles per hour.”

    Landsea obviously believes that climate change is having an effect, he just disagrees as to the extent. What the deniers did here, and what they frequently do, is take these kind of disagreements and use them to falsely suggest that there is a legitimate question as to the occurence of climate change at all.

    As far as Trembath going off on deniers, like the situation with “cimate-gate” emails, its just frustration about having your work disorted and lied about. There wasn’t any actual fraud in “climate-gate” just attempts to prevent the deniers from getting information, but the fallout from that gave them even more ammunition to distort the facts.

    So I’m pretty sure that Don is familiar with the kind of thing in your links, and is well aware of how worthless it is.

  26. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 08/03/2011 - 06:41 pm.

    #1 Jim. I suggest everyone take a trip to India, New Dehli or Mumbai, to see just how significant the impact of man can be. Or better yet China, any of the large industrial cities will do.

  27. Submitted by Jerry Von Korff on 08/03/2011 - 07:05 pm.

    I suggest that perhaps the most effective first step in educating opinion leaders on global warming would be to do a better job of explaining what we know about the glacial-interglacial cycles. What is it that causes climate to get warmer or cooler during these cycles, and what are the equilibrium restoring mechanisms that turn the cycle around and prevent it from continuing to get warmer without bounds, or cooler without bounds. I think that if opinion leaders understood that our climate cycles depend on complex mechanisms involving the Southern Ocean, the carbon cycle, and so on, and if they then understood what might upset that equilibrium, then they would be ready to think more openly about this problem. We know, for example, that equilibrium restoring mechanisms inside our body prevent our temperature from departing 98.6, and we know too that certain things can cause our temperature to rise. If people could understand the earth’s equilibrium mechanisms, then they might be more prepared to understand how upsetting that equilibrium might endanger our climate.

  28. Submitted by Tim Larson on 08/03/2011 - 08:06 pm.

    Dan (#25)Here is the part that bother’s me. from the Landsea link:

    “My view is that when people identify
    themselves as being associated with the IPCC and then make pronouncements
    far outside current scientific understandings that this will harm the
    credibility of climate change science and will in the longer term diminish
    our role in public policy.”

    I don’t deny that the earth is warming. When I started looking in to this, I was biased to your position. I felt it. I remember winter in the 60’s. So I started to look at the science. The first thing I noticed was that the statistical analysis was in contrast to the historical record. Not only that, but people with a financial stake in the outcomes were making pronouncements that were “FAR outside current scientific understanding” (I really hope that gets your investigative juices going Don).

    I did the math and so after a long and winding road I’ve become just a heretic denier to the “crowd”. So be it.

    //So I’m pretty sure that Don is familiar with the kind of thing in your links, and is well aware of how worthless it is.//

    I’m thinking he’s not. When I see him write an article headlined;

    Steven McIntyre, Global Warming, and our Weather.

    Instead of taking on Rush, or some….. state senator was it? Then I’ll believe that Don still has some investigative marrow in his bones.

  29. Submitted by Roy Everett on 08/04/2011 - 04:35 pm.

    The picture caption reads “Rush Limbaugh sees the reporting of the heat index as a piece of government propaganda designed to convince people that it is hotter than it actually is.” The complementary issue to using “perceived temperatures” in the present is the alteration of historical records of actual temperatures in the past. Currently much the data from NASA over the last 130 years seems to have been tampered with. A significant number of weather stations’ temperature readings from the early half of the twentieth century have been lowered by up to a degree relative to the latter half, thus creating a bogus impression that the world is warming by a similar amount. Texas is a particular case, with Temple, Weatherford, Luling and Dublin (TX) taking most of the hit. Also a Freedom of Information Request on Dublin (Republic of Eire) shows an enormous discrepancy between NASA figures and the figures at the weather station[2], mostly in the form of a sharp upward flip in the last decade. This fraud was mostly exposed around 2008, yet incredibly the message circulating in governments in the US, Australia and the UK is to pretend that the data is accurate.

    [1] Texas fraudulent temperature adjustments
    [2] Dublin, ROI, July 2011 compared to NASA

  30. Submitted by Steve Rose on 09/09/2011 - 06:21 pm.

    So, the heat index does not taken wind into account? In my experience, a breeze makes a difference on a warm day.

    Don is very fond of the coined phrase “weather weirding”. There is no limit to the anecdotal data that can be used to make the case for weather weirding, especially in Minnesota. Wouldn’t it be weird if everyday this summer was average? That’s never happened before; that would be weird.

    I think a better term is “whether weirding”, because whether it is hot or cold, wet or dry, windy, or calm, any day that is not average can be considered to be weird. Weird is the perfect non-specific term, which warm mongers can invoke as they spread their gospel, working to convert to deniers to true believers; better yet, zealots.

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