Washington Post columnist Joel Achenbach is terribly aggrieved by the media’s coverage of the relationship between climate change and extreme weather events, complaining, “Somewhere along the line, global warming became the explanation for everything.” Parroting Rush Limbaugh, he fulminates that if a hurricane hits the United States, “some expert will tell us that this storm might be a harbinger of global warming.” He continues:
Right-thinking people are not supposed to discuss any meteorological or geophysical event — a hurricane, a wildfire, a heat wave, a drought, a flood, a blizzard, a tornado, a lightning strike, an unfamiliar breeze, a strange tingling on the neck — without immediately invoking the climate crisis. It causes earthquakes, plagues and backyard gardening disappointments. Weird fungus on your tomato plants? Classic sign of global warming.
That is, of course, nonsense. Achenbach’s piece is a series of distortions, misrepresentations, and false attacks.
In reality, the media almost never discuss global warming in the context of extreme weather events. The cable news channels fill hours of time with “extreme weather alerts” of tornadoes, wildfires, hurricanes, and floods. But the few times they discuss the influence of global warming is to either falsely attack it, as on Fox News, or to garble the science and equivocate, as on CNN. Print media and network television likewise run minimal coverage discussing weather in the context of climate change — and just as rarely discuss the global warming consequences of energy policy.
Achenbach’s sole evidence for a deluge of people “immediately invoking the climate crisis” is a single Newsweek article. Achenbach falsely claims that the author “flat-out declared that this year’s floods in the Midwest were the result of climate change,” when in fact she states “The proximate cause was the western part of the jet stream dipping toward the Gulf of Mexico, then rising toward Iowa,” and goes on to discuss global warming as “one clue” why the jet stream behaved that way. In contrast, right-wing media publish a deluge of global warming denialism and false arguments on a daily basis, from specious libertarians to polluter-funded right-wingers.
Achenbach also is completely wrong about the California wildfires:
Last week, we saw reports of more wildfires in California. Sure as night follows day, people will lay some of the blame on climate change. But there’s also the minor matter of people building homes in wildfire-susceptible forests, overgrown with vegetation due to decades of fire suppression. That’s like pitching a tent on the railroad tracks.
Thus, although land-use history is an important factor for wildfire risks in specific forest types (such as some ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests), the broad-scale increase in wildfire frequency across the western United States has been driven primarily by sensitivity of fire regimes to recent changes in climate over a relatively large area.
The saddest part of Achenbach’s tirade against “iffy claims” of global warming is that he seemingly comprehends the scope of the crisis, writing “Somehow we’ve got to embed environmental effects into the cost of energy sources, consumer goods and so on. The market approach by itself has let us down.” He connects the issues of a growing population, industrial agriculture, sprawl, unfettered free markets, and unsustainable civil engineering practices, saying that “humans are a species out of control.”
What he fails to see is that the solution to global warming is inextricably linked to the solutions to all of these problems. Global warming — with its related consequences of increased floods, strong hurricanes, drought, heat waves, extinction, coral bleaching, infestation, disease outbreaks, severe storms, sea level rise, shoreline erosion, glacial retreat, arctic sea ice decline, permafrost thaws, desertification, and shifts in plant and animal ranges — is just one symptom of ignoring the true costs of “cheap” fossil fuels and resource depletion. A sustainable approach to, for example, flood control policy, reduces the carbon footprint, restores habitat, lessens economic risk, and encourages healthier, safer agriculture.
You should definitely worry about global warming. But you don’t need to worry about global warming when your house is on fire.
My question for Achenbach: Don’t we need to worry about global warming when our entire planet is on fire?
UPDATE: Strangely, this is the same Joel Achenbach who wrote in 2006:
The permafrost is melting across broad swaths of Alaska, Canada and Siberia. Tree-devouring beetles, common in the American Southwest, are suddenly ravaging the evergreen forests of British Columbia. Coral reefs are bleaching, scalded by overheated tropical waters. There appear to have been more strong hurricanes and cyclones in recent decades, Category 3 and higher — such as Katrina. . . All of the above is part of the emerging, solidifying scientific consensus on global warming — a consensus that raises the urgent political and economic issue of climate change. This isn’t a theory anymore. This is happening now.