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:
- CNN, ABC, WashPost, AP, blow Australian wildfire, drought, heatwave “Hell (and High Water) on Earth” story — never mention climate change
- NBC News ignores climate change, blows the bark beetle story
- The NY Times Blows the Wildfire Story
- The NY Times Blows the Drought Story, too.
- USA Today ignores the Link Between Extreme Weather and Climate Change
- AP Blows the Extreme Weather Story
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 droughts — like 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?“).
MUST READ BUSH ADMINISTRATION REPORT
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.
- Sorry, deniers & enablers, Part 2: Climate change means worse droughts for SW and world
- Pielke in Nature: “Clearly, since 1970 climate change … has shaped the disaster loss record
- Unstaining Al Gore’s good name, Part 1
- Unstaining Al Gore’s good name, Part 2