Published on Sustainable Cities

Controversy Continues to Hound Groundhog Day Celebrations

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Punxsutawney Phil, Groundhog's DayPunxsutawney, Pennsylvania: Saturday around 7:00 am, Punxsutawney Phil (PA, USA) emerged from his burrow, did not see his shadow and predicted an early end to winter. A few minutes later and a few hundred miles north, Wiarton Willie (ON, Canada) surfaced, didn’t see his (or is it her) shadow and also predicted an early spring.

Once again, like last year, immediately after the groundhogs issued their prognostications, the Houston and Calgary based ‘Committee for Climate Certainty’ rebutted the groundhogs’ findings, claiming the science was uncertain. The Committee released several years of hacked emails between Wiarton Willie and Punxsutawney Phil – “What are we going to do about those climate doubter’s concerns? We are likely to have a repeat of last year.” Willie is purported to have written Phil in an email. “Let’s stick to the date, fudge the timing, and hope no one notices,” Phil is reported to have responded.

The trouble for the groundhogs began back on April 1, 2011 when the highly influential and credentialed Union of Concerned Scientists argued that climate change had already caused spring to arrive eight days earlier in the northern hemisphere and Groundhog Day should be moved up to Jan. 25 from Feb. 2. “We hope that the change of date will bring needed attention to the consequences of climate change,” Dr. Phil DeGraeve, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University said in the April release. Phil (the groundhog) and Willie were unavailable for comment at that time and avoided media questions all summer.

To avoid the media, as well as recognizing how important climate predictions are for urban officials, both rodents now live in cities and only use their rural burrows for special occasions.

Representatives for both Wiarton Willie and Punxsutawney Phil, upon learning of this weekend’s challenge from the Committee for Climate Certainty, immediately issued statements similar to last year’s, arguing that climate predictions have always been an inexact science, but Groundhog Day is still an important harbinger of spring. “For more than 150 years groundhogs have provided a critical service to cold, spring-obsessed people in Northern US and Canada. They hope to continue to provide this important service and will respect the opinion of the Union of Scientists if the date of Groundhog Day is moved forward.”

Prior to scurrying back into his burrow, Phil was overheard, ‘First those busybody deniers, my Steelers lose again, and now this ongoing circus. What’s a groundhog to do in the absence of evidence-based policy making?’

Amid all the confusion, Wiarton Willie (supposedly the smarter one, and rumored to be female) took a few reporters’ questions. When asked if Willie thought Balzac Billy (AB, Canada), western Canada’s most famous groundhog, would be able to provide corroborating evidence to the weekend’s prediction, Willie answered, “Climate predictions out of Alberta are still suspect. This continues to be a bad time for all groundhogs.”

Dimitri Zenghelis, an important economist who participated in the important Stern Climate Change Report added to the weekend’s comments; “Climate change is the world’s biggest market failure ever. It’s unfair to people and it’s unfair to rodents.”

Mr. Zenghelis also pointed out that just last month in Davos, Mr. Stern admitted to ‘getting it wrong’ when projecting climate impacts (i.e., the gloomy Stern Report was too optimistic and climate change is even more serious than indicated in the 2006 report).

Phil was apparently overheard muttering, “I’m expected to get it right every time on the first try. These Davos meetings have been going on since 1971, and climate negotiators have already had 18 ‘conference of the parties’ to reach an agreement and they’re not even close.” Punxsutawney Phil has been reluctant to break tradition and move Groundhog Day forward 8 days – possibly, as it could interfere with his annual attendance at the World Economic Forum’s Conference in Davos.

Editor's Note: Groundhog Day is a tradition celebrated since the late 1800s in Pennsylvania, and later Southern Ontario, where crowds of up to 40,000 wait on the morning of Feb 2 to see if the groundhog, when emerging from his burrow, sees his shadow or not. There are now at least 30 groundhogs providing this service to communities across the US and Canada. The largest and longest running celebration is in Punxsutawney, PA. Weather folklore has it that if he sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. If not, there will be an early spring that year.

The annual tradition became more widely known through the 1993 movie "Groundhog Day" that showed if given enough time even someone like Bill Murray could meet a woman like Andie MacDowell. People who watched the movie still sing the Sonny and Cher song ‘I Got You Babe’ every now and then. 

Photo: Groundhog Day from Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania;; Anthony Quintano


Dan Hoornweg

Professor and Jeff Boyce Research Chair, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

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