As Washington, D.C., endures a record 10th day of near-triple-digit temperatures, it might be hard for the city's residents to remember that just two years ago, when the capital was blanketed with record snowfall, Republican senator and noted climate change skeptic James Inhofe and his family were building an igloo on the national mall to mock former vice president and environmentalist Al Gore.
Scientists and environmentalists pointed out that a record snowfall is entirely consistent with a warming planet, that models predict more heavy snowfalls because a warmer atmosphere will hold more water vapor.
Jane Lubchenco, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, put the larger point in perspective in 2010: "It is important that people recognize that weather is not the same thing as climate."
Large variations in temperature and humidity will occur even as global temperatures rise. But with current record-breaking heat waves, the weather-climate distinction is being lost.
"This is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level," University of Arizona professor Jonathan Overpeck told The Associated Press of the heat waves, wildfires and storms.
Media watchdog Media Matters blasted news outlets that failed to mention climate change in coverage of wildfires that swept across states.
People might be forgiven for wondering if the mantra "weather is not climate" only applies when the weather is politically inconvenient.
So when is it OK to chalk up unusual weather conditions to climate change, and when is it just normal weird weather?
"It's OK to talk about events when you discuss them in a proper scientific context," says Michael Mann, director of the Earth Science Center at Penn State. "The climate models have predicted what we've now seen, which is a doubling in the rate at which we break all-time warmth records in the U.S. We're breaking those records, over the past decade, at a rate of almost twice what we would expect from chance alone."
More than 2,000 U.S. heat records were broken just in the past week. Climatologists argue that while there's certainly nothing unexpected in periodic record-breaking temperatures, the rate at which these records are being broken year after year can't be explained by coincidence.
Mann notes that the year after Inhofe's igloo stunt, his home state of Oklahoma had the hottest month of any state in U.S. history.
While the planet is undoubtedly getting warmer, attributing a particular weather event to this shift is problematic. Though science might be on the side of climate change, blaming a specific incident on global warming is just as misleading as saying that a cold winter disproves it.
"If you really want the nation to be aware of climate change, severe weather outbreaks are certainly a way to get people's attention. But to attribute a specific one to climate change is, at this stage of the game, impossible," says Otis Brown of NOAA's National Climatic Data Center. By 2100, said Brown, Chicago is projected to have the kind of temperatures now associated with Dallas, but the change will be gradual.
That's unsatisfying for a public that wants tangible evidence. "Most people don't assimilate global statistics or long-term trends -- you feel what's going on by the weather," says NASA's Schmidt. "When weird weather happens, a lot of people just instinctively think its climate change."
Heat waves and wildfires took place long before the planet began warming and most scientists are cautious about stating a causal link.
That ambiguity creates tension between a media and public looking for explanations for bizarre occurrences and a climate science community that, as Schmidt puts it, is often "playing catch-up."
"We don't have a rapid-response climate services team that can tell people what they want to know," said Schmidt.
Keating is an associate editor at Foreign Policy