Journalists and climate scientists at AAAS panel see ‘Superstorm Sandy’ as game-changer on public attitudes. Next step involves finding the right words.

BOSTON, MA, FEBRUARY 16, 2013 — Climate scientists and communicators addressing an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting session say they agree that in the wake of last October’s “Superstorm Sandy,” Americans are more willing to accept that climate change is playing a role in extreme weather events.

They also gave the media generally good marks for covering the storm and describing how climate change amplified its impacts.

“Sandy was a game changer. It brought climate impacts and climate risk into the conversation in ways they had not [been considered] before,” said Andrew Freedman, a senior science writer for Climate Central. And, he said, most journalists asked the right questions about the climate-weather link: not whether climate change had caused the storm, but to what extent factors such as sea-level rise had added to the damage.

‘Connecting Dots’ and Scientists ‘Kicking and Screaming’

According to Harvard biological oceanography professor James McCarthy, a long-standing contributor to IPCC climate assessments, those questions are becoming easier to answer. Over the past decade, he said, statistical evidence of a link between climate change and extreme weather events has strengthened.

“Sandy connected the dots for a lot of people,” McCarthy said. “The U.S. public is there in a way that it was not five or ten years ago. Now the issue is to convey that support to decision makers.”

Associated Press science writer Seth Borenstein pointed out another shift: when scientists discuss extreme weather events like Sandy, they now seem to have more latitude to talk about climate change in dramatic, immediate terms, rather than making carefully bounded statements about means and averages. “Nature is bringing climate scientists, kicking and screaming, into the story narrative,” Borenstein said.

Stanford University ecologist Chris Field, who co-chairs the IPCC’s Working Group II and will lead the next assessment on impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability, agreed that scientists are becoming increasingly outspoken about impacts. As Field noted, IPCC’s 2012 special report, “Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation,” states without qualifications that “A changing climate leads to changes in extreme weather and climate events.”

Looking ahead, Field emphasized that disasters can take very different forms, depending on the context in which they occur. In the IPCC’s framework disasters happen when three factors converge: extreme events (such as storms or heat waves), vulnerability, and exposure. For the world’s poor, who are more vulnerable to disasters and are most often found in poorly prepared areas, even a lesser weather event can become a disaster. Most economic losses from disasters occur in the developed world, because more wealth and infrastructure is at risk there. Conversely, most deaths happen in the developing world, where societies have fewer resources to prepare for and recover from disaster, and where living conditions can make populations more vulnerable.

Building on those points, Freedman said he hopes the media can spend more resources covering extreme weather events and their impacts beyond the United States and showing what is at stake. “We should be telling the story of climate impacts abroad and bringing them home for U.S. audiences,” he said. With many American news organizations having scaled-back or eliminated their foreign bureaus, many will consider prospects for such increased foreign coverage to be dim.

Avoiding ‘Shooting Ourselves in the Foot’

Freedman argued also that it is important to remind audiences that natural variability still influences weather and climate patterns. “You have to prepare the public in case we have a normal phase, and not always focus just on extremes,” he cautioned. And he noted that Americans seem to be attributing some extreme events incorrectly to climate change, such as the 2011 tornado that destroyed Joplin, Missouri.

Several scientists in the audience asked for suggestions about how best to explain the connections between climate change and storms, without over-emphasizing uncertainty. McCarthy and Field both said it is time to make clear that weather events are taking place within an altered climate system. “We need to stop shooting ourselves in the foot and crystallize the things that are understood and not understood,” Field responded.

Jennifer Weeks is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer specializing in environment and energy stories.