Why do the deniers try to shout down any talk of a link between climate change and extreme weather?

The science makes clear that many extreme weather events have increased in recent years — and that there is a link to climate change. The point is such well-established science that even that bastion of denial, the Bush Administration, acknowledged it in a major 2008 report, Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate (see here and below).

But the deniers and their allies, the denier-eqs, try to attack, mock or shout down any talk of such a link whatsoever. That was a key point of Michael Crichton’s book, State of Fear (see here). Some denier-eqs go so far as to claim that any scientist even hearing anyone talk about the link and not objecting is a “willing silent collaborator” in the “misrepresentation of climate science for political gain.”

This is political correctness — and scientific incorrectness — taken to a Category 5 extreme.

I offer my explanation for why deniers and their allies adopt this strategy below, but first, it is worth noting that this shouting down strategy is so important to them it goes back more than a decade:

In his 2004 book, Boiling Point, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Ross Gelbspan wonders why journalists covering extreme weather events don’t use the phrase “scientists associate this pattern of violent weather with global warming.” He reports that a few years earlier he had asked “a top editor at a major TV network” why they didn’t make this link. The reply was: “We did that. Once. But it triggered a barrage of complaints from the Global Climate Coalition [then the major anti-global warming lobbying group of the fossil fuel industry] to our top executives at the network.” The lobbyists argued then, as they do now, that you can’t prove that any individual weather event is caused by climate change. But that is irrelevant to the two key points: The pattern is exactly what we expect from climate change, and we can expect to see more violent weather events in the future if emissions trends are not reversed soon.

That is from my book, Hell and High Water. Sadly, this effort had two impacts. First, as I wrote in the chapter titled “Missing the Story of the Century”:

The environmental community itself decided in the mid-1990s to deemphasize the link between global warming and extreme weather. Yes, you read that right. Many environmentalists actually made a conscious decision to stop talking about what are arguably the most visible and visceral signs of warming for most people. A number of senior environmentalists, including those involved with media outreach, told me at the time that they were tired of being beaten up by the other side on this issue. I thought that was a blunder then and I still do today.

Second, the media itself began to deemphasize or ignore the link entirely, a trend which continues to this day as I have repeatedly pointed out:

Why do the deniers and their allies want to shut down and shout down any talk of a link between climate change and extreme weather?

Because extreme weather is one of the first, visible signs of a changing climate and one that the public experiences most directly. The greatest warming right now is occurring far away from where most people live, at the poles, even if the consequences of that polar warming will ultimately be catastrophic for all.

But before the climate actually changes — and “largely irreversible for 1000 years,” with permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe — the first signs of a changing climate are mostly what we call extreme weather Before the subtropics expand and result in irreversible desertification, for instance, we see longer and more intense droughtslike the “worst on record” ten-year drought in Australia.

But if climate science advocates and the media are successfully shouted down from telling this story, then the public will miss part of the growing reality of catastrophic climate change — until the irreversible climate change damage has already occurred.

So if you wondered before why I spend so much time writing about extreme weather, about its link to climate change, about the media’s miscoverage of this issue, and the indefensible shouting down of those who are quite trying to inform the public in the scientifically accurate manner — this is why I do it.

And if you are a journalist wondering what is a reasonable way to talk about this, one of the best recent examples comes from a New York Times story on Australia made possible by our friend Andrew Revkin:

The firestorms and heat in the south revived discussions in Australia of whether human-caused global warming was contributing to the continent’s climate woes of late — including recent prolonged drought in some places and severe flooding last week in Queensland, in the northeast.

Climate scientists say that no single rare event like the deadly heat wave or fires can be attributed to global warming, but the chances of experiencing such conditions are rising along with the temperature. In 2007, Australia’s national science agency published a 147-page report on projected climate changes, concluding, among other things, that “high-fire-danger weather is likely to increase in the southeast.”

The flooding in the northeast and the combustible conditions in the south were consistent with what is forecast as a result of recent shifts in climate patterns linked to rising concentrations of greenhouse gases, said Kevin Trenberth, a scientist at the United States National Center for Atmospheric Research.

That’s how it is done.

And no, I’m not say that the media should link every extreme weather event the way Revkin did. But when we have “worst on record” type events, or 100-year floods — and especially ones that last more than a day and hit a broad area — then I think the reporter has an obligation to include the issue.

At the same time, it makes less and less sense for the media to make the attribution in the opposite direction — and say, for instance, that the kind of extreme droughts we are seeing in places like California are “an unlucky strike of nature” (see “Is the New York Times coverage of global warming fatally flawed?“).


Another must read is the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (aka the Bush Administration) report, Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate (see “Sorry, deniers: Even U.S gov says human emissions are changing the climate“). This report is really an “I told you so” from NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center and Tom Karl in particular, who has been a real leader in this area, helping to create the still rarely-discussed Climate Extremes Index (see “Global warming causes deluges and flooding, just like the Midwest is seeing (again).”

If you don’t read the whole report, at least read the synopsis:

Changes in extreme weather and climate events have significant impacts and are among the most serious challenges to society in coping with a changing climate.

Many extremes and their associated impacts are now changing. For example, in recent decades most of North America has been experiencing more unusually hot days and nights, fewer unusually cold days and nights, and fewer frost days. Heavy downpours have become more frequent and intense. Droughts are becoming more severe in some regions, though there are no clear trends for North America as a whole. The power and frequency of Atlantic hurricanes have increased substantially in recent decades, though North American mainland land-falling hurricanes do not appear to have increased over the past century. Outside the tropics, storm tracks are shifting northward and the strongest storms are becoming even stronger.

It is well established through formal attribution studies that the global warming of the past 50 years is due primarily to human-induced increases in heat-trapping gases. Such studies have only recently been used to determine the causes of some changes in extremes at the scale of a continent. Certain aspects of observed increases in temperature extremes have been linked to human influences. The increase in heavy precipitation events is associated with an increase in water vapor, and the latter has been attributed to human-induced warming. No formal attribution studies for changes in drought severity in North America have been attempted. There is evidence suggesting a human contribution to recent changes in hurricane activity as well as in storms outside the tropics, though a confident assessment will require further study.

In the future, with continued global warming, heat waves and heavy downpours are very likely to further increase in frequency and intensity. Substantial areas of North America are likely to have more frequent droughts of greater severity. Hurricane wind speeds, rainfall intensity, and storm surge levels are likely to increase. The strongest cold season storms are likely to become more frequent, with stronger winds and more extreme wave heights.

Current and future impacts resulting from these changes depend not only on the changes in extremes, but also on responses by human and natural systems.

So yes, there is a strong link between climate change, which is now predominantly driven by human emissions of greenhouse gases, and the rise in many different type of extreme weather events — and that rise will accelerate in the future and the link will grow. Until, of course, the climate just changes, and in many regions we stop using the word drought, and use the word desert — assuming that we aren’t smart enough to ignore the siren song of the deniers and solve this problem.

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10 Responses to Why do the deniers try to shout down any talk of a link between climate change and extreme weather?

  1. Andrew says:

    “The environmental community itself decided in the mid-1990s to deemphasize the link between global warming and extreme weather.”

    I think at the time this was a smart thing to do. Otherwise the deniers would point to every calm hurricane season or cold winter or summer that lacked drought and flooding as a signal that global warming was not occurring.

    The deniers will state this anyways, but the prior lack of attribution (of extreme climate events) by the environmental community means they don’t have to be seen on camera fuddling around for an explanation every time we have a calm hurricane season or cold winter.

    We are just now learning enough about our climate to attribute certain climate events with global warming.

    Also, you sort of fudged an earlier explanation for last year’s calm hurricane season. You stated it was due to a La Nina.

    The hurricane/global warming science seems to indicate two things of importance that are often not discussed that you may not be aware of.

    One is that Pacific tropical cyclones don’t seem to have increased greatly with recent global warming. The reason may well be that the Pacific tropics are already maxed out heat wise and additional heating isn’t going to lengthen the Pacific storm season (it is already year round) and cause a lot of increase in strength. Perhaps the Pacific is between threshold limits where additional heat causes an increase (or decrease) in storms?

    The other is that just as the Antarctic Sea Ice area is so large compared to the Arctic, and models indicate it will have a delayed response to global warming; it is therfore irrelevant to use global average sea ice numbers when discussing current sea ice loss and global warming.

    Similarly; the Pacific tropics are not expected to respond sharply to current global warming and they are so large (with a year round cyclone season) and have so many storms that the very sharp increase in Atlantic storm numbers and strength is lost in a global average.

    Atlantic storms have increased in number and overall power in the recent past but may now have hit a plateau (until the next threshold is exceeded). In other words, the increase in Atlantic storms has already occurred and is well documented. Scientists are not sure if Atlantic storms will increase further in response to global warming or may decrease. But this is on top of the well documented, existing global warming to date increase.

    A lot of folks miss this point.

    That and a La Nina tends to increase Atlantic storm numbers. Last year’s Atlantic season was above normal for total number of storms and way above normal for other parameters such as number of strong storms, duration of storms, number of landfalling major storms and others.

  2. Lewis says:

    Well first off anything that confuses folks on the difference between climate and weather is not going to help the overall cause. Fundamentally those who are on the fence and those who deny really don’t understand that weather and climate are different.

    Second why a particular weather event is consistent with changes in climate likely can’t be reduced to bite sized chunks digestable with the weather forecast and takes away from telling folks to duck and cover so to speak.

    If someone does take the time to explain how particular extreme weather is consistent with climate change would make folks understand what climate change is so better not to take a chance of the conversation going that direction.

    As mentioned a disaster is immediate and tangible. That reducing CO2 emissions might reduce the frequency and severity of extreme weather events would bring up the “What’s the downside of pursuing renewable energy?” argument. I don’t think the deniers can win that one if it gets started in earnest so better to not take a chance of the conversation going that direction.

  3. paulm says:

    The link is undeniable…

    Name Storms Vs Temperature

  4. DB says:

    Why? No conspiracy or plots needed. The general idea on the other side is that a lot of the warming and other events are not anthropogenic but part of the natural variability of things.

  5. DB says:

    The 170 page report, Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate, is nicely done with lots of color graphs and pictures. Here are some items in it that aren’t consistent with an increase in extreme events:

    p. 5 on droughts
    “Averaged over the continental U.S. and southern Canada the most severe droughts occurred in the 1930s and there is no indication of an overall trend in the observational record, which dates back to 1895.”

    [JR: Well, yes, if you average it over the entire area, then you merge the predicted climate-driven droughts from subtropical expansion in the Southwest with the increase in moisture expected in other parts of CONUS.]

    p. 53 on streamflow
    “Lins and Slack (1999, 2005) reported no significant changes in high flow above the 90th percentile. On the other hand, Groisman et al. (2001) showed that for the same gauges, period, and territory, there were statistically significant regional average increases in the uppermost fractions of total streamflow. However, these trends became statistically insignificant after Groisman et al. (2004) updated the analysis to include the years 2000 through 2003, all of which happened to be dry years over most of the eastern United States.”

    p. 68 on Nor’easters
    “They found a general tendency toward weaker systems over the past few decades, based on a marginally significant (at the p=0.1 level) increase in average storm minimum pressure (not shown). However, their analysis found no statistically significant trends in ECWS frequency for all nor’easters identified in their analysis, specifically for those storms that occurred over the northern portion of the domain (>35°N), or those that traversed full coast (Figure 2.22b, c) during the 46-year period of record used in this study.”

    p. 76 on tornadoes
    “A data set of F2 and stronger tornadoes extending back before the official record (Grazulis, 1993) provides an opportunity to examine
    longer trends. This examination of the record from 1921-1995 indicates that the variability between periods was large, without significant long-term trends”

    p. 77 on severe thunderstorms
    “Thus, there is no evidence for a change in the severity of events, and the large changes in the overall number of reports make it impossible to detect if meteorological changes have occurred.”

    p. 132 on US hurricanes, 1851-2006
    “For 1871-2006, the optimal model was AR(4), for which the slope was
    -.00229, standard error .00089, significant at p=.01. For 1881-2006, the optimal model was AR(4), for which the slope was -.00212, standard error .00100, significant at p=.03. For all other cases, the estimated trend was negative, but not statistically significant.”

    [JR: Again, I think I have been quite careful in my word choice. Some types of extreme weather events are linked to global warming and increasing ( in frequency and/or severity). Others, not so clearly. But I’m not certain what your point is. OK, not every conceivable extreme weather event is detectably increasing. Many area and global warming is probably a significant factor.]

  6. llewelly says:

    Why do the deniers try to shout down any talk of a link between climate change and extreme weather?

    From a scientific standpoint, links to extreme weather are the weakest aspect of AGW. From a PR standpoint, convincing (to everyone – not just to people who understand AGW) links to extreme weather would be a huge win. Links to extreme weather are both high value targets, and easy targets. But most importantly, in many cases, a person needn’t say anything obviously crazy, or, indeed, anything obviously linking them with AGW denialism in order to question a link to extreme weather. Links to extreme weather are the safest targets. You’re fortunate in that most denialists have no idea how easy it would be to attack links to extreme weather with very little risk. And Pielke is particularly frustrating in part because he understands all this most cogently, and makes mistakes relatively rarely.

    However – I have mixed feelings about the environmental community’s decision to de-emphasize links to extreme weather. At the end of the day, the science indicates links. It might be bad PR to bring them up, but that doesn’t make the links unreal.

  7. Lou Grinzo says:

    I would like to make a suggestion about this whole family of discussions we keep having on this and many other sites: It’s pointless.

    The denierbots will keep doing their thing, clinging to any absurd argument they can, even as the poles melt, the ocean acidifies and rises, droughts get worse, etc. They don’t give a flying fig about the truth; they’re using ideology to argue against science, and are one step beyond playing tennis without a net. All they have to do is keep pushing all of their idiocy at once (and they have more than enough people and money to do so), and know that some of their messages will work with some people and achieve their goal: Ongoing delay.

    I think that by far the best alternative is to make sure we get every person possible who understands the science to the polls at every election, so we can override the tidal wave of idiocy from the denierbots. All we need is a way to keep our side fired up and engaged. Perhaps a bunch of web sites that constantly talk about… oh, wait.

  8. rich sequest says:

    Why do the deniers try to shout down any talk of a link between climate change and extreme weather?

    Let’s look at the deeper psychological reasons.

    Apart from instances where a person may have a specific reason to deny, say, global warming ( i.e., a person selling fossil energy may want to sell more product) why would anyone deny the obvious? Hey, it’s getting warmer!

    Just like a cigarette smoker might rationalize that one more cigarette won’t cause lung cancer, a global warming denier might rationalize that just a little more greenhouse gases emitted by humans can’t possibly have that big an impact on the planet. In both cases, the person holds two contrary rationalizations or beliefs simultaneously. To avoid the anxiety encountered in changing their behavior (e.g., quitting smoking or emitting less greenhouse gas) they will continue to adhere to the rationalization that helps them avoid the anxiety of change.

    This phenomenon is called cognitive dissonance.

    The only cure is constant and positive repetition of the real facts. What is the benefit of quitting smoking? What is the benefit of reducing greenhouse gas emissions?

  9. Susan says:

    On hurricanes, connections, and denial, I really like Chris Mooney’s Storm World. Hurricanes/cyclones are a special case and I have learned to be wary on the subject; he explains it well and covers the whole history of records and research up to time of publication (2007). People’s memories are very short, but Fay was very unusual; it broke quite a few records and did a lot of damage.

    I get shot at because I point out trends in weather extremes, but persist because it’s more accessible. Understanding science requires a specialized education which is increasingly rare in our culture. Someone with relatively little science background but a close interest in weather can see that big flooding storms are more common now and what used to be unusual is now normal. A lot of evidence over decades really does stand firm.

    Science can be used to understand and explain, but noticing climate aka trends in weather only requires consistent observation over time and the whole planet (or at least a whole hemisphere).

    I feel like saying, it’s the havoc, stupid; it’s too late when it gets to your doorstep. The costs of rescuing people from their own stupidity are unimaginable.

  10. Rick says:

    well – the no storm link to warming side sometimes seems to be saying we’re in a quiet time for storms now rather than a busy time and in other cases say any seeming increase is just more weather documentation than we used to have from satellites etc.

    Many storms may have gone unnamed in the 1800’s because it was the 1800’s and we do things differently now. I have no links or anything, but I’m sure everyone here has read posts about hurricane activity cycling up and down over 30 year periods or whatever it is, and other statistics establishing that there are no particular storm trends to take note of.