Climate Links to Severe Weather: More Frequent in Media, And Just as Tricky

‘The new normal.’ It’s become something of a cliché, as with weird weather. Can the media and bloggers learn from their journalistic lessons in early coverage of the war on terror in resisting the pack mentality common to interests on ‘both sides.’ How best to proceed, report, and inform while the evidence is still being gathered and interpreted?

Several months ago, Newsweek published a cover story that explicitly linked recent extreme weather events to global warming. The author, veteran science journalist Sharon Begley, cited tornadoes that ripped through the Midwest earlier this year and the catastrophic floods in Pakistan and the heat wave in Russia (both in 2010) as some examples. The subhead for her story included this line:

“In a world of climate change, freak storms are the new normal.”

Commentary

Several veteran journalists on the climate beat, such as Andrew Revkin, challenged some of the Newsweek story’s claims. NPR’s Heather Goldstone critically vetted it and noted that “the question of whether climate change is responsible for the extreme weather of the past year has been a recurring topic virtually anywhere that weather or climate change is mentioned (and that’s a lot of places).”

Indeed the “new normal” for climate communication and much reportage and analysis implies a connectivity between global warming and weather-related catastrophes. In some quarters, it’s become a new frame that is dominating the climate conversation of late. (Well, Texas Governor Rick Perry and his fellow Republican Presidential candidates have recently made their share of climate news, too.) But there is now perhaps a herd effect that begs the question: Are some too readily accepting the asserted climate change/extreme weather link as a foregone conclusion? By the same token, are other reporters perhaps impervious to any suggestion of a connection?

Revkin, for one, often challenges some of the stronger claims made by climate scientists and activists. Bryan Walsh at Time has also been willing to question some of the climate cause and effect claims, as he did in a recent post examining research that links climate change to war. Additionally, Walsh had a post on last week’s Texas wildfires that avoided making a tangible connection to climate change.

Meanwhile, the case that some climate scientists are making is often dutifully and uncritically conveyed through advocacy media outlets. For example, while Russia was still wilting in the summer of 2010, Grist ran a story with this headline: “Climate experts agree: Global warming caused Russian heat wave.”

But that headline jumped the gun: As Quirin Schiermeier in this week’s Nature reminds us, a study by scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) “concluded that the intense 2010 Russian heat wave was probably a result of natural cycles.”*

Climate experts — and many in the world media — were also quick to pin the catastrophic floods that struck Pakistan in 2010 on global warming. But again, the climate change = catastrophe picture was not as clearcut on closer inspection, as Georgia Tech climate scientists Judith Curry and Peter Webster lay out here. Moreover, Webster published an important related study last year that demonstrated how Pakistan’s devastating floods could have been predicted (and thus potentially acted on) in the week before they hit, had available information been properly processed and shared. Of course, media coverage of Webster’s study paled in comparison to the global warming angle that was hyped in the tragic aftermath of the floods.

Granted that for each journalist too quick to pin a climate change label on a specific weather event, there are others likely to be reluctant to do so. Is there a lesson in all this for climate reporters?

On this week’s tenth anniversary of 9/11, perhaps there is a useful parallel with the predominant tenor and type of war-on-terrorism media coverage that played out in the 2000s. Raymond Bonner, a former long-time correspondent for The New York Times, has written at The Atlantic a valuable critique that suggests U.S. journalists too eagerly went along with the concerns and storyline trumpeted by the Bush administration post 9/11. He asks:

“Did we [journalists] exaggerate the threat of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, thus contributing to the collective paranoia, intrusive security measures at airports, and multi-billion dollar security industry that survives on fear? And did we fail to monitor the erosion of civil liberties?”

In other words, did journalists mostly echo an administration storyline — at least in the first years after 9/11 — instead of scrutinizing it?

Bonner is certainly not alone in thinking so.

Admittedly, the comparison of climate change reportage with that of national security is a bit apples and oranges. But it’s still worth asking how reporters and bloggers can most responsibly handle the climate/weather connections while the evidence is still being gathered and interpreted.

In his Atlantic piece, Bonner suggests that after 9/11, various Al Qaeda terrorism links were played up in the media, regardless of their merits. A consequence of this, he argues, is that important stories regarding U.S. national security policies were neglected.

Is it possible that a few years from now, climate reporters might be weighing similar questions about how better they might have covered climate?

*Correction made on study attribution after initial posting on 9/12/2011 (p.m.).

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
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11 Responses to Climate Links to Severe Weather: More Frequent in Media, And Just as Tricky

  1. Chuck Kutscher says:

    This issue of connecting climate change to the frequency of extreme weather events is an important one, because if a link can clearly be made then the cost (both in dollars and lives) can be estimated and compared to the cost of mitigation. It is true that with today’s 24-hour international news cycle, weather events receive much greater coverage than they did in years past. (And this coverage is a significant income generator for the news media, which creates a positive feedback.) Also, the increase in population, especially along seacoasts and in other vulnerable areas, increases the likelihood of weather-related human suffering. But a good statistical analysis should be able to separate out these factors and determine to some defined confidence level the extent to which the frequency and severity of extreme weather events actually represents a new “normal.” Perhaps other commenters can cite an example of such a study having been done. If not, one is sorely needed.

  2. grypo says:

    “Is it possible that a few years from now, climate reporters might be weighing similar questions about how better they might have covered climate?”

    It may be the case in tornadoes, but as far as more energetic (but less frequent) and wet hurricanes, likely not, depending on the chaotic nature of their tracks. And certainly not likely in the case of very wet El Nino years and dry La Nina years. These will very likely increase as well. The coverage at Climate Central that has been discussing the influence of the combination between increased surface temperature and the natural energy flow and it’s consequences has been outstanding. I believe it’s Freedman doing this.

    In the paper of Pakistan/Russia, it is also noted that the frequency of these events is likely to increase to significant degree, so if media coverage gets places to adapt to worsening conditions, then I doubt this will be similar to Iraq War failures. There has also been significant rains in Pakistan again this year.

    The Webster/Curry paper, if accurate, is great step forward in longer term forecasting. I believe coverage of these forecasts will need to be a topic for the climate concerned media folks.

  3. Gaythia says:

    For most humans in most places, I think that the problem with basing a decision-making analysis on a linkage between cost and cost of mitigation is: Where?

    It seems to be the current analysis of Midwest coal based power producers, and maybe even Midwest rate payers, that the cost of ozone mitigation exceeds the expenses incurred by continuing pollution. Especially since much of the pollution occurs not there, but in the Northeast. And that’s not even considering more nebulous long term effects.

    For me, here in Colorado, “mile high”, the cost of sea level rise would be strictly a secondary effect, not ever a life and death matter.

    Now what?

  4. Erl Happ says:

    Keith Kloor must be congratulated. It is a pleasure to read a post that reminds us that we enjoy a common sense approach. Irresponsible advocacy must in the end, be self defeating. Zealots who overstep the mark will find themselves in the corner where they talk to the wall and wear a dunces cap.

    Gently questioning. Delicious. Refreshing.

  5. JeffN says:

    “But it’s still worth asking how reporters and bloggers can most responsibly handle the climate/weather connections while the evidence is still being gathered and interpreted.”

    You cannot “report” a connection that doesn’t exist- ie is “still being gathered and interpreted.” Doing so is called advocacy, not reporting. You can report that people are looking into it, but don’t know. You can report that some claims are being made but are far from clear (what Al Gore calls “false balance”). But you cannot report something that doesn’t exist.
    Also, journalists do not invent stories, they cover them. No journalist drew the connection between weather events and climate change- scientists and activists did that (more of the latter in my opinion) and journalists and their editors chose to treat this as “news.”
    So, the short but accurate version of this post is- many climate scientists and activists convinced the media to inaccurately portray the link between weather and climate. This is causing a credibility problem for both the media and the advocates. How can we fix the credibility problem while continuing to give publicity to inaccurate claims?

  6. JP says:

    The media is currently linking severe weather events with climate change and there’s nothing we can do about it. Articles routinely pose the question, “Is this drought/flood/hurricane a product of climate change?” The very act of asking the question establishes a link in the reader’s mind. Ergo, it’s my view there is no need for scientists or advocates to “prove” that any single event is related to climate change. The question is enough. The meme is established.

    Yet there is a downside to linking extreme weather events with climate change as it reinforces the public’s conflation of weather with climate.

    Weather is concrete where climate is abstract, a trend. So there’re better climate bellwethers that severe weather events. It’s important to find illustrations that convey a “trend” is underway, not just a single unique event. For example, there’s abundant evidence that the allergy season is longer and more severe due to changes in the climate. For the hundreds of millions of people suffering from hay-fever, that trend seems intuitively correct . . . more headaches today than yesterday. The allergy analog is but one way to “get into somebody’s head.”

  7. Tom Scharf says:

    I say keep up the good work!

    Every article the media copy /pastes from Professor X’s news release about some spurious correlation between climate and tornadoes, mental illness, civil war, hurricanes, etc. only serves to reduce the credibility of climate science.

    The intuition of the general public is very disrespected. If causation is not clearly spelled out in a believable way, one has to assume that the claim is more activism and agenda driven than reality. After a repeated series of these claims, getting more unbelievable with each tenuous connection, you simply have to laugh at who do these people think they are fooling?

    They are whizzing on unquestioning journalists and telling them it is raining.

    These stories should never see print until causation is clearly described, and it is believable. There also needs to be a verifiable trend with some real statistics to back it up. Torturing pre-ordained conclusions from noisy random data seems to be one thing climate science is very good at.

    I’ve seen enough scatter plots and line regressions in my life to instantly tell on a glance of a graph what is a good trend, and what is crap. Journalists would be well advised to understand a few basics of statistics, but unfortunately we cannot depend on them to fill in for a sorely lacking peer review that appears to be corrupted. What we should be able to depend on them for, is to weed out the “duh” factor claims.

    Increased flooding? Maybe. Civil war? Mental Illness? Duh.

  8. Eadler says:

    The Grist piece includes extensive quotes from three scientists, Tobis, Trenberth and Carver, and details their reasoning. It is clear that they are making statements of opinion off the cuff. Tobis “hazards a guess”, and Carver has made estimates of probability of such an event based on historical data as being very low, indicating something has changed. Trenberth’s statement was about weather systems, and not about global warming at all. This is really not very strong stuff.

    The statements of the scientists are a lot weaker than the lead paragraph and the headline. It is probable that if the lead paragraph, and the headline, mentioned scientists “hazarding a guess” that global warming is involved, and “low probability” of such an event occurring based on historical data, the reader might have yawned and not bothered to finish the article.

    This shows the difference between journalists and scientists.

    So now more careful and more thorough look showed that Tobis’ guess, and Carver’s probability calculations didn’t seem to pan out. According to many global warming deniers, since climate scientists who work for the government are in it for the money, and will always jump at the chance to blame AGW for anything bad that happens in the weather, the new study should never have happened. Of course it is always a possibility that a different study using different models could come to the conclusion that AGW made Russia’s drought problem worse.

    According to what I have read, the American Southwest is supposed to dry out as a result of global warming. I am eagerly awaiting the papers that are going to be written on whether the current drought in Texas was made worse by global warming.

  9. Barry Woods says:

    I wonder if any thing has changed since this article January 2010..

    From a moderate voice. Richard Betts, Met Office, Head of Climate Impacts (IPCC AR5 lead author)

    BBC: Science must end climate confusion
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8451756.stm

    Richard Betts:
    “…The focus on climate change is now so huge that everybody seems to need to have some link to climate change if they are to attract attention and funding.

    Hence the increasing tendency to link everything to climate change – whether scientifically proven or not.

    The question is: do climate scientists do enough to counter this? Or are we guilty of turning a blind eye to these things because we think they are on “our side” against the climate sceptics?

    It’s easy to blame the media and I don’t intend to make generalisations here, but I have quite literally had journalists phone me up during an unusually warm spell of weather and ask “is this a result of global warming?”

    When I say “no, not really, it is just weather”, they’ve thanked me very much and then phoned somebody else, and kept trying until they got someone to say yes it was.
    ————————-

    I imagine, by now (article was January 2010, just after Copenhagen’s failure & climategate) that the media just don’t bothering ringing around anymore…

    They just go straight to the same people that are good for ‘a quote’
    I imagine everyone is aware of who these people are in the USA.

  10. Keith Kloor says:

    Barry,

    Thanks for the link to the Betts piece. Some of the passages you cited indeed points up issues that make climate scientists uncomfortable.

    Also, there is an unfortunate tendency of (all) journalists to rely on known sources (who then become over-used), rather than seek out new voices.

    • JeffN says:

      Betts’ wrote: “When I say “no, not really, it is just weather”, they’ve thanked me very much and then phoned somebody else, and kept trying until they got someone to say yes it was.”

      I really believe, from a media criticism point of view, it is critical to point out that writers who do this are not “journalists.” They are advocates. Our willingness to pretend that they are journalists has done irreparable harm to the media- only 32% of political independents trust the mainstream media to accurately report on global warming. That’s not due to “false balance” it’s due to the fact that the environmental beat is a playground for activists pretending to be journalists.
      Here’s a prediction- you will not see “action” on global warming as long as the “reporting” on this issue is handled in the way Betts describes. Period. And by the way- the willingness- the eagerness – to do this is one of the reasons people believe the journals are doing the same thing- “did you find man-made warming? no? okay, we’ll move on to the next submission, call us when you find the correct answer.”