MIT’s Emanuel Rethinking Warming/Hurricanes; Most Media Too Busy Covering … Whatever

You might think it would be news when MIT scientist Kerry Emanuel, who has influentially linked global warming to stronger hurricanes, reconsiders his views in light of new evidence.

Two respected climate journalists – Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle and Andrew C. Revkin of The New York Times – thought so. But few other traditional news outlets seemed to find time for the story.

By April 16, four days after Berger broke the story of a new Emanuel study, a search on Google News revealed that only the Christian Science Monitor and Fox News, among major traditional outlets, had followed Berger and Revkin in covering it.

Emanuel’s new findings were published in the March issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. Berger’s Chronicle article – headlined “Expert cools on effects of warming: Scientist says temperature rise might not mean more or bigger storms after all” – ran on the newspaper’s front page on April 12. (The website headline: “Hurricane expert reconsiders global warming’s impact.”)

“I saw the BAMS article, and know the players in the relatively small field of hurricanes and climate well enough to realize that it was a big deal. At least within the field,” Berger said in an e-mailed response to an inquiry from the Yale Forum.

Revkin clearly agreed with that news judgment. At 9:16 a.m. on April 12, he posted an item on his Dot Earth blog about Emanuel’s study, prominently crediting Berger for breaking the story and quoting from Berger’s SciGuy blog post on it.

In his news article, Berger reported that Emanuel’s study, using a new computer-modeling technique, “suggests that, even in a dramatically warming world, hurricane frequency and intensity may not substantially rise during the next two centuries.” He added that global warming’s role in hurricane intensity “remains far from certain.”

The Chronicle story also included this quote from Emanuel:

“The take-home message is that we’ve got a lot of work to do …. There’s still a lot of uncertainty in this problem. The bulk of the evidence is that hurricane power will go up, but in some places it will go down.”

Revkin’s blog post was similarly nuanced, also stressing the lingering uncertainty at the heart of scientists’ evolving research into the hurricane-warming connection. It included this statement by Emanuel:

“The models are telling us something quite different from what nature seems to be telling us. There are various interpretations possible, e.g. a) The big increase in hurricane power over the past 30 years or so may not have much to do with global warming, or b) The models are simply not faithfully reproducing what nature is doing. Hard to know which to believe yet.”

Perhaps other news reporters’ reluctance to jump on the study was simply attributable to a longstanding principle of traditional journalism: Editors seldom regard scientific uncertainty and the incremental unfolding of scientific findings as the surefire makings of a hot story.

That didn’t faze bloggers of skeptical bent about climate change. They were all over the Emanuel study in droves. A few of their headlines:

  • “MIT Scientist Kerry Emanuel Backs Away from Global Warming Hoax”
  • “Scientist Changes Mind: Global Warming Doesn’t Create Hurricanes”
  • “Wow. The global warming Oops just get bigger and bigger”
  • “Climate Science in Disarray: Fraying at the Seems”

So much for journalistic nuance.

Bill Dawson

Bill Dawson is an independent journalist who edits Texas Climate News, an online magazine published by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Houston Advanced Research Center. He was previously environment writer for the Houston Chronicle. (E-mail: bill@yaleclimatemediaforum.org)
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