Linking global warming and weather a sticky issue
Two recent extreme events - record flooding in Fargo, North Dakota, and deadly drought-related wildfires in southern Australia - have again highlighted the question of how journalists should portray the relationship between extreme weather and climate events and global climate change. The changing characteristics of extreme events is one of the trickiest parts of the climate change story to tell, since on the one hand many scientists say that extreme events are increasing in frequency and severity due to climate change, but on the other it is impossible to attribute any single event to global climate change.
When an extreme event occurs, a reporter is often caught in a quandary. If we overplay the causal link between climate change and the event, then we can rightly be accused of being alarmist. A glaring example of this occurred in 2005, when veteran journalist Ross Gelbspan wrote in an op-ed in the Boston Globe in 2005 that global warming essentially caused Hurricane Katrina's devastation, which was contrary to scientific evidence. "The hurricane that struck Louisiana yesterday was nicknamed Katrina by the National Weather Service. Its real name is global warming," he stated.
Keep reading for more on the challenges of reporting on climate extremes and global warming...
Yet, if journalists ignore the scientific studies that show that some types of extreme events are consistent with what is expected due to climate change, then we may be guilty of a sin of omission. Striking a balance between the two can be difficult, and as coverage of the events in North Dakota and Australia demonstrate, U.S. media outlets may be approaching this with more hesitation than their international counterparts.
With the flooding in the Upper Midwest last month, the media did make some mention of possible connections to global warming-related increases in extreme precipitation events, but such coverage did not dominate the storyline. This was despite the 2008 federal report on climate change and extreme events which demonstrated that extreme precipitation events have already become more frequent in the U.S. due to a warming climate.
Most of the google news hits for "North Dakota flooding AND global warming" related to a statement President Obama made on the subject on March 23, which generated a brief flurry of coverage that then died down. By contrast, Australia has seen a surge of global warming-related stories on the country's drought and wildfire situation since the fires were finally extinguished last month, after claiming the lives of 173 people. The U.S. media has started to take note of the Australian situation, with a Los Angeles Times headline last week stating, "What will global warming look like? Scientists point to Australia."
As indicated here on February 10, while the fires in their country were still burning, Aussie journalists sought out experts to discuss possible links between the conditions that caused the fires and global climate change. They didn't have to look far, considering that studies indicated that increasingly drier and more fire-prone conditions were likely in parts of Australia due to climate change.
Some advocates who favor swift reductions to global warming pollution argue that American journalists should take a cue from our Australian colleagues, and increasingly frame extreme events from within the context of climate change.
Joe Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who writes the popular blog Climate Progress, has been prodding reporters to spell out the connections between extreme events and climate change. Romm served in the Clinton administration's Energy Department as acting assistant secretary of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and has authored two books on climate change solutions.
For example, in response to an NBC Nightly News story last year on bark beetle infestations in the West that did not mention the role climate change may be playing in enabling the pest to spread, Romm wrote, "What's next for NBC -- a story on the obesity epidemic that doesn't talk about food?"
In an email interview with CWG, Romm said the scientific evidence linking climate change with certain extreme events is sufficient for reporters to raise the issue in many cases.
"The scientific literature is quite clear that 1) climate change has begun increasing the frequency and severity of some extreme weather events and 2) that it is projected to do so more in the future," he said.
According to Romm, his motivation to influence the coverage of extreme weather and climate events is "because it is scientifically accurate, not to impact public opinion." He continued, "That said, if the public has no idea that many of the extreme events we are facing today are precisely what scientists have predicted would occur from climate change, then obviously they are not being fully informed of the rising threat we face."
On the more cautious end of the spectrum is a blogger with whom Romm frequently spars, political scientist Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado at Boulder, who writes the blog Prometheus. Pielke studies the impacts of natural disasters, and thinks the media should focus more on the need to reduce societal vulnerabilities to extreme events, rather than exploring what he sees as speculative ties to global warming.
"Making the link is not justified by the science. The caution of most every scientist on this topic occurs for a reason," Pielke told CWG.
Pielke said that attributing extreme events to climate change is typically a tactic to try to boost public support for policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which may not limit climate change for several decades. Such coverage could backfire, he said, noting a recent opinion poll that showed an increasing number of Americans think the media coverage of global warming is "exaggerated."
Personally, I think the optimal way forward lies somewhere between Romm's championing of causal links, and Pielke's cautious approach. With each extreme event, journalists should ask whether there is sufficient scientific evidence to justify mentioning a climate change connection, and if so, how solid such a link may be.
It would of course be extremely helpful if scientists could provide the media with more definitive guidance regarding under what circumstances we should or shouldn't bring climate change into a story, but as Pielke told me, "A world without nuance is probably much easy[ier] to cover, but it is not our world."
* Last week's post on reporting and climate change: Will Misleads Readers on Climate Science - Again *