Global Warming and 2008 Extreme Weather? Newsweek’s Begley Answers ‘TRUE’ on a Link

There was really no mistaking the July 7/14, 2008, Newsweek as intending to be something special: Forget that the label promoted it as a “Summer Double Issue.” That’s not the point.

The “Lincoln vs. Darwin” cover illustration, with the “Who Matters More?” come-on was one part of the hint, but bigger still was the (mostly) all-upper case wording across the top of the cover: “THE (mostly) BIG THOUGHTS EDITION.”

Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham bylined a “The Stories We Tell Ourselves” feature as part of a “global literacy 2008″ kicker. There followed a series of True/False and multiple choice bylined essays.

Running opposite a full left-hand page image of homes crushed against a Midwest railway bridge crossing a river “because the jet stream kept funneling moisture north from the gulf,” veteran science writer Sharon Begley in the headline posed the provocative true/false mindbender: “Global Warming is a Cause of This Year’s Extreme Weather.”

“ANSWER: TRUE,” she and her magazine responded. Begley went on to address what she correctly characterized as “almost a point of pride with climatologists …. No particular weather event, goes the mantra, can be blamed on something so general.” Extreme weather events occurred prior to the onset of increased greenhouse gas emissions, she wrote. “So this or that storm” might be the progeny of the same natural forces common a century ago.

But Begley was having none of it. “The pretense has worn thin,” she opined, and “some climatologists now say global warming is to blame” for more frequent downpours and heat waves and more powerful hurricanes.

The same attribution analyses increasingly tying greenhouse gases to higher temperatures now are being applied to droughts, downpours, heat waves and powerful hurricanes, Begley wrote, citing widely recognized expert climate scientists.

“Global warming has left its clearest fingerprint on heat waves,” Begley wrote. But downpours also increasingly show a global warming “fingerprint”, and “hurricanes have become more powerful due to global warming.”

Begley’s closing sentence: “Get used to it, and don’t blame Mother Nature.”

That was Begley’s closing sentence, but not the last word on her handling of the issue.

In a Sunday, August 3 piece, Washington Post reporter Joel Achenbach wrote that “We’re stuck on the notion that climate change is the culprit every time a natural disaster strikes.”

“You are permitted to note, as a parenthetical, that no single weather calamity can be ascribed with absolute certainty (roll your eyes here to signal the exasperating fussiness of scientists) to what humans are doing to the atmosphere, Auerbach wrote in an opinion piece. “But your tone will make it clear that this is just legalese, like the fine-print warnings on the flip side of a Lipitor ad.”

Auerbach said the Newsweek coverage “derided the wishy-washy climatologists who couldn’t quite bring themselves to reach that conclusion [that global warming is the culprit] (they “trip over themselves to absolve global warming”).

“Uncertainty is intrinsic to the scientific process,” Auerbach wrote, “and sometimes you have to have the courage to stand up and say, ‘Maybe.’” He wrote that he fears that “global warming threatens to suck all the oxygen out of any discussion of the environment …. Rest assured, we may find ways to ruin the planet even before the worst effects of global warming kick in.”

Emphasizing that not all disasters – wild fires, floods, heat waves, etc. – can be attributed to climate change, Auerbach concluded his piece by writing: “You should definitely worry about global warming. But you don’t need to worry about global warming when your house is on fire.”

To review comments Begley’s column generated to the magazine’s website, go to www.newsweek.com/id/143787/output/comments. The comments are not numbered, but there are lots of them, of course of widely varying length and merit. Be prepared to scroll.

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