Climate Communication Graphics:  
Dog walker’s guide to weather vs. climate

(Video from Siffer, Teddy TV.    Animator: Ole Christoffer Hager)

This simple animation, illustrating the difference between variation vs. trend, or weather vs. climate, has become an instant classic.

It demonstrates most of the characteristics of a great metaphor, by. . .

explaining something that is…                  in terms of something else that is…

  • unfamiliar                                                  familiar
  • complex                                                     simple
  • abstract                                                     concrete
  • serious                                                       fun
  • cerebral                                                     engaging the senses

The meandering dog captures the random changes of daily weather vs. the slow upward climb of average temperature (i.e. climate).    If you’ve ever walked a puppy, you can almost feel the tug on the leash, as the excited dog races back and forth, sniffing everywhere.

The two words that appear at the end are in Norwegian.   “Klima” = climate.   “Vaer” = weather.

Like every metaphor, this one is imperfect.    A good metaphor compares two things that are very different, but similar in one key aspect.   This one breaks down over who is following whom.    The dog’s path wanders within a limited range determined by the leash length and the walker’s line of motion.     In reality, the relationship between trend and variation is the opposite.     The climate trend follows — or, more precisely, is determined by — the long-term average of weather variations.*

Tom Curtis at Skeptical Science cleverly complemented the above animation with an earlier excellent graphic that makes the same point, somewhat differently, minus the logical flaw.    This one highlights the way “cherry picking” skeptics use short term variations to confuse people about the long-term trend.     This animation avoids the misleading implication that variations follow the trend, rather than vice-versa.

But for catching the readers eye, making the message “stick” and sheer cuteness, it’s hard to beat the excited pup.


*It might be possible to fix this logical flaw without too much difficulty, by simply modifying the dog walkers steps so they trace the actual trend line (e.g. running mean) determined by the dog’s movements.    I’ve written the animator to suggest this!

5 thoughts on “Climate Communication Graphics:  
Dog walker’s guide to weather vs. climate

  1. John

    I agree, it’s a very striking visual representation of the superficial difference between weather and climate; however, from a scientific viewpoint I have an issue with it, and would warn not to take the analogy too far.

    In reality climate is the sum total of weather experienced historically (ie looking backwards from this moment) within a region or regions. So speaking graphically, weather is what we experience as a result of immediate forces; and what we know as ‘the climate’ is changed slowly over time in response.

    So coming back to the cartoon graph; the man has a dog on a lead and while it might look like the dog is leading the man, in reality we know the man is in ultimate control of where the dog is allowed to go. Thus the man knows where they will both end up. This is not the same as the scientific equivalent of this graph which is exactly the opposite: the climate trace has no predetermined route — it’s totally in the control of where the erratic pattern of weather will lead.

    Hope that helps,


    1. Tom Smerling Post author

      JR — I totally agree. In fact, the flaw you mention is

      1) why I hesitated for a several weeks, after it first appeared, before posting it, though it appeared on many other climate sites,
      2) devoted nearly 1/2 the post to discussing the logical flaw, and
      3) added the second graph which, while less amusing, is logically accurate.

      Still, in the end, I think that its benefits outweigh the drawbacks — hey, even my wife, who is by now rather jaded about climate, noticed it! — and it should be available here.

      And I have to say that for some of us dog lovers, it makes the concept of variance very kinesthetic, even visceral. I find myself thinking about it when the weather suddenly recently — “Oh yeah, remember. That’s just the dog wandering, not the trend.”

      But I’m planning to write the author, and ask if they would consider fixing the flaw, as described in the footnote in the post!

  2. Colleen Redding

    Love this video! Perhaps it could try this simulated again with multiple dogs (different variable influences)! That’s would be a bit closer to the actual situation! Also would add more cuteness appeal!

    1. Tom Smerling Post author

      I actually wrote the animator (who is also a statistician) to ask whether he would consider upgrading it to reflect the logical flaw noted above. No answer yet….but once that’s fixed, maybe he can move on to multiple dogs!

Leave a Reply