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Opinion Is the media scaring the public too much about climate change and extreme weather?

An Aug. 15 Coast Guard photo provides an aerial view of flooded areas of Baton Rouge. (Melissa Leake/AFP/Getty Images)

The media has gone overboard in calling attention to links between climate change and extreme weather, contend two scholars in the United Kingdom. They argue that journalists are oversimplifying connections between weather and global warming and are resorting to scare tactics that are distracting the society from being prepared for extreme weather. The hype is responsible for a counterproductive and paralyzing “atmosfear,” they claim.

But their contention of a media-induced “atmosfear” goes too far. It’s possible to both plainly and carefully communicate how climate change is affecting extreme weather while also stressing the importance of extreme weather preparedness, irrespective of climate change.

In their provocative analysis in the journal Weather, Climate and Society, Vladimir Jankovic and David Schultz of the University of Manchester raise some valid points worthy of consideration. The most important point they make is that the overwhelming majority of damage from extreme weather results from people and property in harm’s way — not climate change. Some journalists and activists, in their zeal to connect the dots between weather and climate change, don’t place enough emphasis on this.

However, what the authors gloss over is that our atmosphere is fundamentally changed because of increasing greenhouse gases, and the effects on certain types of extreme weather are real. We can’t ignore this. It would be irresponsible for journalists to omit this very important aspect of the climate change story.

Consider these examples in which climate change is having significant impact on weather extremes:

* Locations all around the United States (and the world) are setting substantially more warm temperature records than cold temperature records. More extreme heat events have societal consequences. Warming from rising greenhouse gas concentrations is almost certainly playing a role in this.

* Several recent studies have found climate change meaningfully increasing the magnitude of historic rainfall events.

Study: Climate change made the deadly Louisiana flood far more likely

* Sea level rise means that every time there is a major coastal storm, more land area is inundated.

It is true that nuance in making these linkages can be lost, which does a disservice to science. “Reducing the complexity of climate change (as if a single outcome were known) into the soundbite of ‘climate change means more extreme weather’ is a massive oversimplification — if not misstatement — of the true state of the science,” the authors say.

Journalists, as well as advocates for climate action, should take care in specifying which weather extremes may have been altered by climate change and how — and rely on peer-reviewed analysis.

And they should avoid making the connections too frequently and with too much gusto.

Thinking back to baseball’s steroid era, it would have been overkill to implicate steroids after every home run. Offending sluggers hit homers prior to their abuse of performance-enhancing drugs and would’ve maintained that ability if they stayed clean.

But would it have been reasonable to bring up steroids when they launched 500-foot moonshots into the upper deck? Certainly. And did it make sense to link the drug use to their inflated statistics at the end of the season — beyond anything previously observed? You bet.

The primary concern the authors seem to have about all of the attention paid to extreme weather and climate changes linkages is that it takes society’s eye off the ball of extreme weather readiness. “By reducing the complexity of climate science down to its effect on weather events, proponents run the risk of underemphasizing the crucial socio-economic components of increased risk, (e.g., increasing exposure of assets in vulnerable locations),” they say.

They argue, correctly, that stopping climate change won’t stop extreme weather and worry the public will be surprised if, after climate policies are implemented, extreme weather keeps happening. “Members of the public and governmental representatives who had been sold on ‘stopping climate change will reduce extreme weather events’ would understandably question their bill of goods, reducing scientific credibility,” they conclude.

But the concerns the authors have about scientific credibility can be overcome if media and advocates for climate policy are simply honest: Climate policy won’t stop extreme weather, but it could well slow the pace and reduce the amount of some changes in the long haul which would be less taxing for society to adapt to.

It is possible to both discuss the connections between climate change and extreme weather where they exist and stress the importance of preparedness for weather now and in the future. We just need to take care in how we communicate.