The recent spate of severe weather events is drawing increased attention — in science and some journalism arenas — to possible links with long-term climate change. It’s an explosive issue and one that will demand close attention and monitoring as it moves forward.

Unusual weather events — hurricanes, droughts, heat waves, snows, wild fires and more — can be the punching bag of choice for advocates on all “sides” of the climate change issue. They alternately use rhetoric playing such events to their benefit, or as totally irrelevant to long-term climate issues, depending on the event and the timing. Each side would love to be able to make a scientifically compelling and journalistically responsible case. The feeding frenzy leads to memorable, but scientifically wanting, sound bites like “snowmageddon” and to Capitol Hill photo ops, and worse.

News Analysis

The glut of severe weather incidents over the past few months has fed into this frenzy. But it’s also fed into a growing line of scientific analysis, to some extent reflected in some media, and to some new strides in connecting the dots between long-term anthropogenic climate change and short-term weather anomalies.

A few current examples making the rounds:

Independent writer John Carey, for years a Business Week Washington, D.C., bureau correspondent, posts a three-part Scientific American series — funded, not unimportantly, by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change — with the successive headlines:

  • “Storm Warnings: Extreme Weather is a Product of Climate Change”;
  • “Global Warming and the Science of Extreme Weather”; and
  • “Our Extreme Future: Predicting and Coping with the Effects of a Changing Climate.”

“Increasingly, the answer is yes,” Carey wrote in the first part in answering whether the spate of “recent extreme events” can be responsibly linked to climate change. He quotes National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) climate scientist Kevin Trenberth as saying, “Now we can make the statement that particular events would not have happened the same way without global warming.”

“That’s a profound change,” Carey writes: “The reason is simple: The signal of climate change is emerging from the ‘noise’ — the huge amount of natural variability in weather.”

In “Global Warming Goes Nuclear,” Climate Central writer Andrew Freedman goes perhaps a step further and in a somewhat different direction, as evidenced by that headline. His June 29 posting points to flooding risks (“which may be aggravated by global warming”) troubling two nuclear power plants in Nebraska and raising concerns also over the Los Alamos National Laboratory nuclear weapons site.

“To determine whether a power plant can withstand future extreme event scenarios, be it river flooding or a hurricane,” Freedman wrote, “the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] looks to past events as a guide. However, this approach doesn’t hold up when it comes to global warming, which is already heightening the risk of previously rare or even unprecedented flooding events.” He wrote that Missouri and Mississippi River floodings over the past two years “should not be looked at completely divorced from the broader context of a warming world. All extreme weather events now take place in a world that has far more greenhouse gases in the air than at any other time in human history.” Freedman provides a citation to research indicating climate change does not “cause” individual extreme weather events, but adds that “it does tilt the odds in their favor.”

Also see:
Writer John Carey and Sci Am Executive Editor on Pew Center Sponsorship of Series

Considerably less nuanced is a July 1 piece in Britain’s Independent newspaper bylined by science editor Steen Connor. “Extreme weather ‘can no longer be ignored’,” the paper headlined. Its teaser and opening paragraph were no more qualified or specifically attributed: “Scientists are to end their 20-year reluctance to link climate change with extreme weather — the heavy storms, floods, and droughts which often fill news bulletins.” Connor, without specifically saying which scientists, characterized the purported move as “part of a radical departure from a previous equivocal position that many now see as increasingly untenable.” He pointed out that attributing individual weather events to climate change “is likely to be highly controversial” but wrote that “a growing number of climate scientists are now prepared to adopt a far more aggressive posture.” Growing by what absolute number and from what baseline? Those vital stats are left to the reader to conjure up.

Connor pointed to a new coalition called “Attribution of Climate-Related Events” and wrote that it hopes to report later this year on its work at a Denver meeting on climate research.

Agree or disagree with the thrust of such reports as those cited here, one certainly can welcome an increase in informed public discussion and media coverage of potential climate change/weather event connections. At a time when Newsweek can “photo-shop” its own cover photo (see PDF) — magically juxtaposing the late Princess Diana with Kate Middleton, — the issue will continue to raise credibility issues for scientists “pro” and “con” … and also for how the media report on that scientific work.

The three pieces noted above all attracted the usual amount of venomous and knee-jerk nay-saying familiar to those writing on virtually any climate change subject. In the case of Carey’s Sci Am piece, some journalism traditionalists — while perhaps fully and logically capable of granting credibility to Scientific American as a publication, to the Pew Center as a reputable organization, and to Carey himself as a veteran journalist — take pause at seeing the three combined in the name of science journalism in a respected science journal. “Sponsored journalism,” they might rather call it, notwithstanding forecasts that this may be just one more manifestation of the “new media” and “new journalism” increasingly taking hold in the wake of the ongoing media revolution.

Weather and climate. It’s one more explosive mix in the always combustible communications challenges involving anthropogenic climate change. The issue — and how the media shape it — will be worth watching, and monitoring, closely.

Writer Carey and Sci Am Editor See

‘Legitimate Concerns’ over Pew Center Funding

Freelance writer John Carey went into his relationship with an NGO funder of his three-part series on climate science and weather with his eyes fully open.

Approached by the Pew Center to write on the subject, he said in a phone interview with The Yale Forum, he told Pew right-off that the partnership would raise some journalistic eyebrows. He realized too that the collaboration could be seen as “breaking new ground” and says he insisted on “drawing lines” to protect his journalistic product, and on “having good answers” to questions the collaboration inevitably would raise.

At that early stage, Carey did not have a specific placement for the piece in mind. He says he turned to Scientific American based on a long personal relationship with its executive editor, Fred Guterl, a former deputy editor of Newsweek. As for his Pew contacts, Carey said they told him he could place the piece himself or, if not successful in placing it, “they would print it themselves.”

Carey says he insisted to Pew that he alone retain editorial control over the story — “just like any other story” — and that Pew could not tell him what to write. At the same time, however, he acknowledged showing Pew staffers a first draft and a final draft prior to its publication. “I kept them apprised of drafts,” he said, says Pew had “no editorial control” and offered “no substantive comments” on the final draft, which he said had been shared across the Pew Center staff and not solely with its climate science personnel. He said he examined other emerging journalism business models — some founded by foundations with an interest in the subject being reported on — and referred specifically to groups like ProPublica and Climate Central. (The Yale Forum is funded by a grant from The Grantham Foundation for Protection of the Environment, which itself has a keen interest in climate change issues.)

“It’s a legitimate concern,” Carey said when asked about questions involving “sponsored journalism.” He pointed to widespread uncertainty in journalism circles over “where to draw these lines” as traditional news media continue to evolve in the face of often-shrinking print audiences and sagging financial performance.

In a phone interview, Guterl also acknowledged uncertainties about “where to draw the line,” and he said “journalism is in a place where it’s never been before. There are a lot of new models out there.”He defended the financial backing of the Carey series in part because he sees the Pew Center as “nonpartisan and nonprofit” and because of its tax status as not being a lobbying interest. While saying he stands by the journalistic merits of the series, he said the funding arrangement inevitably raises some legitimate concerns about journalistic independence.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is Editor of Yale Climate Connections. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as Assistant Director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission on Air Quality,...