Farmers’ Almanacs Clean Up Their Climate Act
Once used by conservative media to promote climate skepticism, America’s favorite purveyors of pseudoscience are pivoting for the warming era.
Last week, the 2024 edition of The Old Farmer’s Almanac became the ninth bestselling nonfiction paperback in America. “Sales on Amazon … have never been so strong, and copies are also selling briskly at bookstore chains and indie bookstores,” The Washington Post’s book critic Ron Charles reported, going on to admit he is among the millions who are “hooked” on the almanac’s folksy advice, remedies, and, of course, its long-range forecasts.
This winter, The Old Farmer’s Almanac has told its readers to expect “a whole lot of cold” as well as “oodles of fluffy white throughout the season!” The Farmers’ Almanac — the primary competitor of Old Farmer’s, which postdates its founding by a quarter century — has a similar outlook. “The brrr is back!” it predicted, much like it did in the winter before this one (“shake, shiver, and shovel!) and the winter before that (“snowy comeback!).
In fact, for years now, conservative media has used The Old Farmer’s Almanac and The Farmers’ Almanac to promote climate skepticism, leveraging the periodicals’ reliable predictions of the “return” of winter and a “cooling” planet as a kind of gotcha against established science. And for years, the almanacs have played right into that agenda, conspicuously avoiding mention of the one long-range forecast we can accurately make: that the world is getting warmer due to the burning of fossil fuels.
But this is not a story of unrepentant climate deniers. Despite the right-on-cue predictions of a “freezing” winter, there are also encouraging signs the almanacs are starting to clean up their acts.
There is something both laudatory and a bit absurd about this, like if Punxsutawney Phil were suddenly to start consulting greenhouse gas emissions scenarios in addition to his shadow. When The Old Farmer’s Almanac debuted in 1793, the first accurate weather forecast was still 68 years away; almanacs at the time made their forecasts using a combination of folklore, weather proverbs, astronomy, and random guesswork.
Surprisingly, the two surviving Colonial almanacs largely use these same methods today. While The Old Farmer’s Almanac says it considers “all of the latest satellite data for making forecasts,” it also claims to incorporate a secret formula devised by its founder (a contemporary of George Washington) that is kept in a locked black box in the publication’s offices. The Farmers’ Almanac “firmly [denies] using any type of computer satellite tracking equipment” and instead makes its forecasts using its own proprietary formula, supposedly known only to the pseudonymous “Caleb Weatherbee.”
By modern weather modeling standards, such approaches amount to “astrology for weather,” Brian McNoldy, a senior research assistant at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science, told me. As he elaborated, “there is no real skill” on the part of the almanacs; needless to say, their secret formulas have not been peer-reviewed.
Indeed, actual farmers long ago abandoned almanacs in favor of agricultural weather stations, and the meteorological community generally agrees that long-term forecasts aren’t accurate more than 10 days out. The almanacs’ dubious claims of 80% accuracy are often chalked up to the same confirmation bias that is at play when you read your horoscope.
If the almanacs were solely in the business of telling you the most auspicious day to color your hair based on the moon’s sign, that would be harmless enough. But it’s the alarmist “brr is back!” headlines, not the eventual, weirder winter results, that get coverage this time of year — including, historically, in conservative media, which has used the almanacs’ predictions to drum up the cold spell fallacy that snowy winters supposedly disprove the world is warming.
“The famous Farmers’ Almanac is going to damper the mood of many man-made global warming alarmists,” Breitbart wrote, for example, in its coverage of the publication’s 2013 winter predictions. The same year, Townhallcrowed that “The Farmers’ Almanac … is predicting a horribly cold winter as the Obama administration prepares to run around Congress to combat global warming.” Fox News ran a similarly celebratory segment and The Daily Callerrecycled the whole argument in 2015.
Sometimes, the almanacs seemed to play along. In 2008, The Old Farmer’s Almanac published an article by Joseph D’Aleo, a “well-known climate change skeptic,” which proposed “another possible explanation for …. climate change” beyond human responsibility: sunspots. Once a common weather forecasting technique, the sunspot theory has since been seized by climate deniers to allege solar activity, not human emissions, is responsible for global temperature fluctuations.
“Studying these and other factors suggests that a cold, not warm, climate may be in our future,” D’Aleo went on under a headline that wondered, “Is Global Warming on the Wane?” The article was eventually even cited by Republican Senator James Inhofe in Congress against bills that would have addressed global warming, according to DeSmog.
When I asked for comment about this episode, though, The Old Farmer’s Almanac surprised me by seeming, well, embarrassed. “While it is true that The 2009 Old Farmer’s Almanac featured a story by Mr. D’Aleo, the Almanac’s editors do not agree with his opinions on climate change,” a spokesperson told me on behalf of the publication, adding that “many articles from previous editions of the Almanac make their way to our website; the fact that his article remained was an oversight. We have removed it.”
Sure enough, recent editions of The Old Farmer’s Almanac haven’t shied away from putting a name to warming trends. “Climate change is happening,” one orchardist is quoted as saying in an article from the 2023 Almanac, while a separate write-up on millet in the same issue states plainly that we’re living in “an era of climate change.” An item in the 2024 edition further frets that “climate change and rising temperatures” could imperil the diet of the Loch Ness Monster. (Before that disspirits you too much, the 2024 edition also explains that “average global temperatures [are steadily increasing] due to greenhouse gas emissions”).
The Farmers’ Almanac is more proudly anti-science than The Old Farmer’s Almanac — dismissing, as it does, that newfangled “computer satellite tracking equipment” — and its editor, Peter Geiger, declined to comment for this article. Previously, though, Geiger told Topic in 2018 that “I won’t get into the battle about global warming because I think it becomes a political debate,” though, of course, the omission is its own kind of commentary.
But if there was a time The Farmers’ Almanac could be evasive, it’s passed. Evidence of climate change has become so omnipresent and urgent that even the Fox News moderators at the Republican presidential debate have to ask about it. Sure enough, one of The Farmers’ Almanac’s 2022 articles notes that “climate change has made nature’s documented cycles unreliable,” although it avoids explaining why that change is happening. A 2023 piece online also quotes the United Nation’s definition of climate change while calling the topic “highly politicized” and therefore outside of the Almanac’s purview. But then, buried in an article published this spring, The Farmer’s Almanac admits that “when excess [greenhouse] gases are released through the burning of oil, coal, gas, and other fuels, the climate warms significantly.” Ah-ha.
Call it adaption: If either The Old Farmer’s Almanac or The Farmers’ Almanac plans to stick around for another century (at which point heat waves in California alone could be 10 to 14 degrees higher than they are now), the publications need to at least have some grounding in the warmer reality their readers will occupy. Ancient formulas will need to be dusted off, perennially “cold” winter forecasts quietly tweaked.
Doing so, in some ways, is anathema to such reluctant-to-change publications (even The Old Farmer’s Almanac’s cover has barely been altered since 1851). But if farmers’ almanacs have a central guiding tenet, it’s that there is a best time for everything.
And for talking frankly about climate change, it seems, they’ve finally realized such a time is now.