What makes last week’s snowfall newsworthy was the point at which the White House decided to share the news about it: on Sunday, a day when the temperature in Washington hit a high of 70 degrees. More importantly, the low was 49 degrees — too warm for snow and a temperature reached only after the White House’s tweet.
For an administration with a robust track record of dishonesty, the tweet struck many people as being another, albeit unusually odd, example of exaggeration or misrepresentation. That’s probably an ungenerous interpretation. It seems much less possible that the White House communications team is engaged in some Machiavellian psychological experiment on bending the American public to its will than that some person at the White House scheduled a pretty picture to run on Sunday evening as part of one of those generic sorts of social media strategies that is now integrated into most cultural entities. Time will tell.
What’s been missed in the reaction to the tweet, though, is a more important contrast. It’s not just that the tweet about snow overlapped with an unusually warm day that matters. It’s that this is the precise opposite of how President Trump has traditionally tried to leverage the weather to his political advantage.
Trump, as you may be aware, has regularly tried to downplay or undermine the idea that rampant greenhouse-gas emissions have caused the climate to warm. One tool he’s deployed to that end is to tweet on days when it’s particularly cold, mocking the idea of a warming climate by noting that it still gets cold on occasion.
Here was Trump in January 2013.
Here was Trump in January 2014.
Here was Trump in January 2015.
And so on. Those are just some of the examples from the month of January, though they are by no means constrained to that month. Over and over, in late fall, winter or early spring, Trump has noted that it’s cold outside and, therefore, that the otherwise clearly demonstrated warming of the planet is not occurring.
Speaking of social media strategies, it’s a bit like how bad teams (such as the New York Knicks, for example) will post Instagram videos of one of their players making a good play even though the team lost by a wide margin. Sure, maybe one thing happened that breaks the pattern, but the pattern is still there.
What the White House tweet did — no doubt unintentionally — is highlight how warm it was in Washington on Sunday. The normal high in Washington on Jan. 12 is 43 degrees, putting Sunday’s temperature 27 degrees above normal. That is no more proof that the climate is warming than a cold day is proof that it isn’t, but a warmer-than-usual winter day is certainly more suggestive of something abnormal happening than a winter day that’s cold.
On Dec. 31, the last day of the decade, we looked at how the previous 10 years had unfolded in terms of warmth. On the map below, locations that are shades of blue were colder than the 20th-century average for those locations through November for at least half the decade. Locations that are shades of red were warmer than average, with brighter reds indicating more years with temperatures above the average.
Trump’s thoughts on climate change are neither deeply considered nor reflections of the available evidence. He treats it as he does so many other things, highlighting random things that he thinks prove his point while ignoring other evidence, however overwhelming, that doesn’t. He’ll tweet about the wicked dunks in a game his team lost by 30 points.
That’s why the White House tweet was so ironic, inadvertently highlighting his hypocrisy on leveraging weather events for politics. And here they were just using a lovely photo from earlier in the week to generate some retweets, some “engagement” in the parlance of social media.