Photo: Chris Toombes
If you’re like me, you’ve been mentally cataloging a bunch of weather events that have seemed weird and extreme, wondering to yourself: Is this normal? Am I the only one who thinks this is odd?
Prompted by those feelings, and spurred on by a nascent conversation about the connections between extreme weather and climate change, I started asking the question: Just how should climate change communicators be talking about the weather?
One possible answer came from national climate action guru Bill McKibben.
Sidestepping (stomping on?) the standard-issue disclaimer that “no single weather event can ever be directly tied to climate change,” in a Washington Post op-ed called “A link between climate change and Joplin tornadoes? Never!,” McKibben pours on the sarcasm and tops it with a big helping of irony. He insists that we should absolutely not, under any circumstances, make connections between climate science and the devastating storms, fires, drought, bug infestations, crop failures, or floods we’re witnessing at home and across the globe. Nope! “Best not to ask yourself if there’s a connection,” he writes, “because then you’d inevitably have to wonder about all kinds of other things that you probably don’t want to wonder about, for example, whether President Obama really should have opened a huge swath of Wyoming to new coal mining,” or if Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should really “sign a permit this summer allowing a huge new pipeline to carry oil from the tar sands of Alberta?”
My initial response: Yes! Go, Bill McKibben! He articulated exactly what a Climate Nerd like me was feeling — and said it all without really saying anything at all that science deniers could attack. Why didn’t I think of that?! (Incidentally, McKibben’s op-ed makes for a chilling voice-over script for this video montage by Plomomedia.)
Was it too snarky? Is dark humor inappropriate in this context? Were his claims exaggerated? Climate policy advocates get antsy when one of their own goes on the attack or strays from those ubiquitous disclaimers. Indeed, there are many climate communicators who are gun shy after 2009 polling by Gallup that showed that a record-high 41 percent of Americans thought that media coverage of the threats of global warming were exaggerated. That’s when many of us swore off messages about scary “gloom and doom” climate impacts, instead focusing on solutions and opportunities.
Despite the backlash — or perhaps because it prompted extreme reactions — I’m thinking that McKibben’s approach probably worked best to fire up tried and true climate activists — and it did get a charge out of the science denial set as well. That’s McKibben’s job, after all. But not all of us can pull that kind of thing off. Still, it’s our job to acknowledge and communicate about the fact that climate scientists are increasingly seeing the “fingerprints” of human-made carbon overload of the atmosphere at the “crime scenes” of weather events.
Who else is talking about it?
Timothy Egan weighed in. (The tornado in Joplin, Mo. seemed to be a tipping point for a lot of folks who’d largely been standing on the sidelines on the issue of climate change.)
Egan’s was a zero-snark appeal to American common sense. By way of analogy, he writes that faced with information about risks to our health, “sensible people change course.” Whether that’s really true is up for debate.
Egan continues with a fairly straightforward but serious caution, delivered with the briefest possible overview of the scientific and political landscape: “The consensus of fair-minded research — ignored by those who assume to know better in the Republican Congress — is that an earth warmed by an excess of man-caused carbon emissions will cause more weather extremes.” The forecast is simple, he writes. “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
A surprisingly assertive treatment by Newsweek pointed to a tableau of weird — not to mention tragic and expensive — weather events unfolding in the United States and across the globe, and then echoed Egan’s warning in equally stark terms:
Even those who deny the existence of global climate change are having trouble dismissing the evidence of the last year. In the U.S. alone, nearly 1,000 tornadoes have ripped across the heartland, killing more than 500 people and inflicting $9 billion in damage. The Midwest suffered the wettest April in 116 years, forcing the Mississippi to flood thousands of square miles, even as drought-plagued Texas suffered the driest month in a century. Worldwide, the litany of weather’s extremes has reached biblical proportions. The 2010 heat wave in Russia killed an estimated 15,000 people. Floods in Australia and Pakistan killed 2,000 and left large swaths of each country under water. A months-long drought in China has devastated millions of acres of farmland. And the temperature keeps rising: 2010 was the hottest year on earth since weather records began.
From these and other extreme weather events, one lesson is sinking in with terrifying certainty. The stable climate of the last 12,000 years is gone. Which means you haven’t seen anything yet. And we are not prepared.
Then there was an excellent three-part series by Scientific American which pulls no punches. “Extreme Weather Is a Product of Climate Change,” the headline reads, and the introduction asserts that “more violent and frequent storms, once merely a prediction of climate models, are now a matter of observation.” The author asks: Is the recent spate of extreme events all those dire climate predictions turned into cold, hard reality?
Increasingly, the answer is yes. Scientists used to say, cautiously, that extreme weather events were “consistent” with the predictions of climate change. No more. “Now we can make the statement that particular events would not have happened the same way without global warming,” says Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo.
That’s a profound change —
the difference between predicting something and actually seeing it happen. The reason is simple: The signal of climate change is emerging from the “noise” — the huge amount of natural variability in weather.
Finally, I would be remiss leaving out The Onion’s take on extreme weather and climate change, which takes the form of a mock press statement issued by The Earth and addressed to Humankind:
Following a recent series of disastrous floods along the Mississippi River and destructive tornadoes across much of the United States — as well as a year of even deadlier natural catastrophes all over the world — the Earth said its options for strongly implying that it no longer wants human beings living on it have basically been exhausted.
So, what approach works best?
If McKibben’s (and surely The Onion‘s) fires up the base but turns off the less engaged, Egan, and probably Newsweek, too, likely speak to an important segment of the public who are fairly well-versed in climate science, accept climate change is happening, and are dismayed by extreme weather events, but who haven’t yet experienced a real sense of urgency about global warming and who, in any case, remain mystified about an appropriate response. They likely come away still wondering just how to react.
For its part, Scientific American‘s reasoned look at the science gives the others’ words crucial credibility.
I’ll consider later in this series the effectiveness of particular frames that are emerging in these responses: “a new normal,” a “snapshot of what’s to come,” a “climate wake up call,” “you ain’t seen nothing yet,” to name a few that have cropped up. But for now, let’s consider the key elements that make for effective messages about climate and weather.
In my opinion, Elizabeth Kolbert’s take in The New Yorker is a model to strive for. In a short article, she gives us a snapshot of the extreme weather that’s wreaked havoc here at home and across the globe for real families and real communities (Joplin, Mo., Texas, China, Colombia). She then explains, in simple terms, how all these events are related to a warming climate, pointing to carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels as the primary cause and lamenting a new International Energy Agency report that global CO2 emissions rose by a record amount last year. Then — and this is key — she calls for political and moral accountability:
Obama knows — and, indeed, has stated as much — that if we continue along our present path we’ll guarantee our children a much more dangerous future. Taking the steps that would reduce the risks of climate change is not going to be politically popular, which is why it is the President’s obligation to press for them.
The necessary elements are all there, without any unnecessary snark or wonk or overstatement: the weather, the science, the culprit, and an insistence on policy that does the right thing.