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What were the temperatures where you live yesterday? What about last week? A month ago? What were the daytime highs and lows two years ago last Tuesday? If I’ve stumped you, that’s the point. Most of us might be able to recall, more or less, what our local temperatures were through the previous week; further back than that, we need to start pulling up temperature records.

And even if you could remember, that would only reveal the temperatures where you were. It wouldn’t tell you what temperatures were halfway around the globe, across the country or, unless you’re a merperson, in the ocean. But whenever temperatures dip, as they did last week across much of the United States during the polar vortex, some people — including the president — ask, “If the planet is warming, why is it still cold?”

It’s a question that frustrates a lot of climate scientists and climate reporters, both because the answer is obvious to us, and because some of the people asking the question seem to be using it as part of an effort to sow misinformation about climate change. We would never point to a night sky as evidence that the sun doesn’t exist.

But on a certain level, why people are asking the question matters less than that they are. So I prefer to think that at least some people are asking in good faith. While Americans overwhelmingly accept the science of climate change, most only think about the issue for maybe a few minutes a month. That’s not enough time to really dig into the physics and chemistry of a changing climate. Part of my job is to help make sense of it for people who don’t spend days reading scientific journals.

At the same time, Americans on average spend 90 percent of our time indoors, which means we’re not the most perceptive watchers of weather. Unless you’re a farmworker or otherwise work outdoors, we don’t really notice the winter days that are unusually balmy but still require us to wear a coat. We do, however, remember the days when we have to throw on several pairs of thermal underwear, a hat, a scarf, and our thickest jacket before heading outdoors. And in fact, those days seem even colder, relative to the days that are weirdly warm.

On unusually warm winter days — not the days when the thermostat suddenly hits 70 degrees, as it did in Washington, D.C., shortly after the polar freeze, but the days when it should be 40 but is 50 — nobody really comments. Given that context, questioning frigid temperatures in a warming climate makes intuitive if not scientific sense. As a reporter, that just means I have to find new ways of giving the same answers.

The answer, by the way, is that climate isn’t weather. Weather is what’s happening over the short term, climate is what happens over the long term. The National Centers for Environmental Information, a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says that weather tells us what to wear on a given day, while climate tells us what we should put in our closets. It’s why you don’t find many South Floridians with an extensive down coat collection.

In the case of global warming, researchers stitch together all of those regional climate measurements to see what’s happening to the planet overall. And what’s happening is that it’s getting hotter. Overall, New York state’s temperatures on average are about 2.4 degrees higher since 1970, and winters have warmed even more quickly, by 4.4 degrees. Even while portions of North America froze last week, parts of the West Coast were unusually warm, while parts of the Southern Hemisphere, including Australia, were literally on fire.

A research scientist I spoke to recently said that part of the problem with climate change is that for a long time it was slow-moving and invisible. But while we still can’t see climate emissions, we’re already beginning to feel their effects in a multitude of ways, including more intense hurricanes, floods, wildfires and droughts. The world’s oceans are getting hotter and more acidic, killing marine life, and insect pests like ticks are thriving, spreading diseases and, in New England, killing moose. The question is how bad are we going to let things get.

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Kendra Pierre-Louis is a reporter on the climate team. Before joining The Times in 2017, she covered science and the environment for Popular Science. @kendrawrites

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