Climate change and redefining ‘normal’

No day is ever precisely like a previous one, but there are often enough similarities to build a picture of what a ‘normal’ day looks like for a given individual or organisation. An idea of normality provides a benchmark against which to measure deviations, things that are out of place – because there is an established order of things that we expect to observe and to happen, and whether things are out of kilter or not guides our own behaviour and decisionmaking.

So when normal weather patterns are redefined, noticeably taking account of the gradual impacts of climate change, that should give some pause for thought. In the US, as the 30-year average is updated to drop the 1970s and add the 2000s, there’s a gentle uptick in what will be considered normal weather, on account of the past decade being the hottest decade of record (the most noticeable cited by the article, a +1 to +2.5F in the Midwest in January).

The linked article highlights the practicalities of updating the ‘climate normal’, which are routinely used in all sorts of businesses in planning for the future. If snowfalls may become more common in areas where snow might have previously been a rarity, then investing in more snow-clearing equipment would make sense. Or if the average temperature is nudged upwards for one ski resort area, it may lose out to other regions that see less change.

The flip side may be that as the climate normal gradually ticks upwards, the extent of longer-term change that our environment is actually undergoing is masked because we’re slowly but constantly redefining what is ‘normal’ for our climate.

Standards of expected action for people and institutions aren’t called ‘norms’ for nothing, because they reflect what behaviour is collectively considered normal. From country-specific norms (like tipping or driving practices) to more global ideas (like the prohibition on chemical warfare as an accepted weapon of war), norms both enable and restrict how we behave, by indicating appropriate behaviour in given circumstances (i.e. whether a 5% or 15% tip is expected). When something is seen to be normal, it’s also seen to be ok. That’s why concern is raised over ‘size 0’ fashion models, because their presence on catwalks suggest that this ultra-thin body shape is entirely normal, or more dramatically, with the Arizona shootings – that political rhetoric invoking violent imagery has facilitated political violence as something that is not entirely beyond the pale.

So as short-run climate averages shift with the rising temperatures of climate change, we will come to normalize how our climate is changing around us – forecasts of either more dry or wet spells, for instance, change from being forecasts to being lived experience, that we will come to expect to recur more and more in the future. Our infrastructure, built in times when climate patterns were expected to be different, will reflect the distance that we’ve travelled from what might have been ‘normal’ in 1970 or 1990. Averages over longer periods of time will, of course, more accurately capture the degree of change, say over the course of a century.

But only sporadically do we think in terms of decades, instead more commonly using the more recent past of immediate years gone by as rules of thumb – where the creeping effects of climate change remain obscured from view, and our slowly evolving standards of appropriate behaviour fail to sound the alarm about just how much our environment is changing.

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