Nick is a Justmeans staff writer for the Climate Change and Energy & Emissions categories, with a background working on climate and energy issues both on the ground and online. Nick is particularly interested in the interplay between the written word and the creation of on-the-ground change, which he examined in-depth in his senior thesis while at Pacific University. Since graduating from col...
Why the Media Should Make the Connection Between Extreme Weather and Climate Change
Consistent with the predictions of climate change scientists, 2010 has been a year of extreme and unusual weather on both a national and global scale. To be sure not every storm, flood, and wildfire this year can be attributed to buildup of carbon emissions in the atmosphere, but the overall pattern of record-setting and out of the ordinary weather events has just been too obvious to ignore. Yet while the media delights in covering the details of individual extreme weather events, most mainstream sources have failed to make an obvious connection: an increase in extreme weather is right in line with the predictions of climate scientists, and should be attributed at least in part to the effects of climate change.
Probably the most notable and tragic weather events from this year were the runaway wildfires and massive floods that devastated Russia and Pakistan this summer. But these particularly dramatic events are just the tip of the iceberg. 2010 saw mudslides in China, deadly heat waves in Japan and Europe, and new temperature records set in seventeen countries around the world. Early in the year the eastern United States experienced severe cold snaps consistent with the predictions of climate change, while the Pacific Northwest winter was uncharacteristically warm. The 2010 Atlantic hurricane season was on of the most active in memorythough by sheer luck none of the largest storms hit densely populated areas in the US.
This fall the trend continues. Similar to last winter the eastern United States is experiencing abnormal cold while in the west the cold season has so far been almost balmy (again, both the high and low temperatures are fully consistent with the models of climate science). Yet mainstream media stories have, with a few notable exceptions, been largely silent on how such extreme weather events might be linked to climate change. To cite one example, yesterday the New York Times published an online article about recent extreme weather events. Not once did the piece use the term "climate change" or "global warming," despite the fact that this type of weather is exactly what we can expect to see more of as climate change continues.
Why the omission? Reporters may be understandably cautious about attributing specific weather events to the effects of climate change. However the point here is not that a warm Northwest winter or a cold snap in Florida can be unequivocally tied to the rise of carbon emissions in the atmosphere. Many factors influence the climate, and I'd actually be surprised if ever example of extreme weather I've cited here could be brought back to climate change. The more important consideration is whether or not specific weather events are due to global warming, human activity is making extreme weather more common and giving us years like 2010which is shattering weather records left and right.
In this context, reporting on extreme weather without mentioning climate change is like covering a terrorist incident without bothering to ask who set off the bomb. Frankly, it's bad reporting, and we have a right to expect better. People rely on the media to keep them informed about what's going on in the world, so they can make wise decisions about where to invest their money (or not), who to vote for, and how to prepare for the future. Surely knowing how our decisions may contribute to more extreme weather is just as important as knowing how the economic climate will affect our investment choices. In the months and years ahead, I hope we'll see the media do a better job making the essential link between extreme weather events and climate change caused by human activity.
Photo credit: US Geological Survey