‘The new normal.’ It’s become something of a cliché, as with weird weather. Can the media and bloggers learn from their journalistic lessons in early coverage of the war on terror in resisting the pack mentality common to interests on ‘both sides.’ How best to proceed, report, and inform while the evidence is still being gathered and interpreted?

Several months ago, Newsweek published a cover story that explicitly linked recent extreme weather events to global warming. The author, veteran science journalist Sharon Begley, cited tornadoes that ripped through the Midwest earlier this year and the catastrophic floods in Pakistan and the heat wave in Russia (both in 2010) as some examples. The subhead for her story included this line:

“In a world of climate change, freak storms are the new normal.”


Several veteran journalists on the climate beat, such as Andrew Revkin, challenged some of the Newsweek story’s claims. NPR’s Heather Goldstone critically vetted it and noted that “the question of whether climate change is responsible for the extreme weather of the past year has been a recurring topic virtually anywhere that weather or climate change is mentioned (and that’s a lot of places).”

Indeed the “new normal” for climate communication and much reportage and analysis implies a connectivity between global warming and weather-related catastrophes. In some quarters, it’s become a new frame that is dominating the climate conversation of late. (Well, Texas Governor Rick Perry and his fellow Republican Presidential candidates have recently made their share of climate news, too.) But there is now perhaps a herd effect that begs the question: Are some too readily accepting the asserted climate change/extreme weather link as a foregone conclusion? By the same token, are other reporters perhaps impervious to any suggestion of a connection?

Revkin, for one, often challenges some of the stronger claims made by climate scientists and activists. Bryan Walsh at Time has also been willing to question some of the climate cause and effect claims, as he did in a recent post examining research that links climate change to war. Additionally, Walsh had a post on last week’s Texas wildfires that avoided making a tangible connection to climate change.

Meanwhile, the case that some climate scientists are making is often dutifully and uncritically conveyed through advocacy media outlets. For example, while Russia was still wilting in the summer of 2010, Grist ran a story with this headline: “Climate experts agree: Global warming caused Russian heat wave.”

But that headline jumped the gun: As Quirin Schiermeier in this week’s Nature reminds us, a study by scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) “concluded that the intense 2010 Russian heat wave was probably a result of natural cycles.”*

Climate experts — and many in the world media — were also quick to pin the catastrophic floods that struck Pakistan in 2010 on global warming. But again, the climate change = catastrophe picture was not as clearcut on closer inspection, as Georgia Tech climate scientists Judith Curry and Peter Webster lay out here. Moreover, Webster published an important related study last year that demonstrated how Pakistan’s devastating floods could have been predicted (and thus potentially acted on) in the week before they hit, had available information been properly processed and shared. Of course, media coverage of Webster’s study paled in comparison to the global warming angle that was hyped in the tragic aftermath of the floods.

Granted that for each journalist too quick to pin a climate change label on a specific weather event, there are others likely to be reluctant to do so. Is there a lesson in all this for climate reporters?

On this week’s tenth anniversary of 9/11, perhaps there is a useful parallel with the predominant tenor and type of war-on-terrorism media coverage that played out in the 2000s. Raymond Bonner, a former long-time correspondent for The New York Times, has written at The Atlantic a valuable critique that suggests U.S. journalists too eagerly went along with the concerns and storyline trumpeted by the Bush administration post 9/11. He asks:

“Did we [journalists] exaggerate the threat of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, thus contributing to the collective paranoia, intrusive security measures at airports, and multi-billion dollar security industry that survives on fear? And did we fail to monitor the erosion of civil liberties?”

In other words, did journalists mostly echo an administration storyline — at least in the first years after 9/11 — instead of scrutinizing it?

Bonner is certainly not alone in thinking so.

Admittedly, the comparison of climate change reportage with that of national security is a bit apples and oranges. But it’s still worth asking how reporters and bloggers can most responsibly handle the climate/weather connections while the evidence is still being gathered and interpreted.

In his Atlantic piece, Bonner suggests that after 9/11, various Al Qaeda terrorism links were played up in the media, regardless of their merits. A consequence of this, he argues, is that important stories regarding U.S. national security policies were neglected.

Is it possible that a few years from now, climate reporters might be weighing similar questions about how better they might have covered climate?

*Correction made on study attribution after initial posting on 9/12/2011 (p.m.).

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.