Journalists and climate disclaimers
Earlier this week, the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson wrote a great column connecting the recent heat waves to climate change. As one of the very few mainstream journalists willing to do so, he deserves kudos, or props, or big-ups, or whatever kids are calling them these days.
However, much like the rest of the tiny handful of journalists making the connection, he felt the need to include this disclaimer:
This is the point in the column where I’m obliged to insert the disclaimer that no one event — no heat wave, no hurricane, no outbreak of tornadoes or freakish storms — can be definitively blamed on climate change. Any one data point can be an anomaly; any cluster of data points can be mere noise.
This kind of thing drives my friend Brad Johnson crazy. In an email, he says it’s “just false, and not useful.”
This gives me an excuse to make a point about media coverage of this stuff. In a nutshell, I agree with Brad that it’s not useful — not useful for climate advocacy purposes, but also not useful as journalism — but disagree that it’s false.
As I see it, Robinson’s disclaimer is true. No one event can be “definitively blamed on climate change.” The problem is, all kinds of baggage is being smuggled in with the word “definitively.”
If a reliable observer witnesses a lightning strike that spreads into a fire, then the fire can be definitively blamed on the lightning strike. Anything beyond that involves some level of surmise, some level of probability — degrees of confidence. The fire cannot be definitively blamed on drought, high winds, dead trees, even lightning storms. Scientists are rarely definitive about anything. What scientists can do, what we all can do, is say with a high degree of confidence that the fire wouldn’t have happened the way it did without those factors in place. And we can say with a high degree of confidence that those factors wouldn’t have been in place if not for climate change.
So the problem is not that the paragraph isn’t true. The problem is that it’s banally, almost tautologically, true. It’s just as true for any distal cause of an event.
But mainstream journalists don’t feel the need to insert a disclaimer with other distal causes. You never hear, “no one fire can be definitively blamed on drought,” even though technically it’s true. Most journalists feel free to say “drought is to blame for the wildfires” without a bunch of hedging and disclaiming. When they hedge and disclaim only about climate change, it has the effect of making climate change look vaguely epistemologically suspicious. The casual reader doesn’t parse the disclaimer, they just get a shifty, defensive vibe.
This is one of many illustrations why journalistic “objectivity” is a myth. There’s an endless number of true things that can be said and an endless number of true ways to say them. Which you choose to say, and how, conveys its own message. In this case, the message is a lack of confidence, rhetorical and social.
It’s also an illustration of how well conservatives (and concern trolls) have been able to work the refs. Those journalists brave enough to mention climate change in the context of any actual event in the world are almost never confident enough to simply treat it as a distal cause among other distal causes, to take it for granted. Climate change ought to be, not some novelty to be hemmed and hawed over, but simply a background condition to be noted. “Climate changes’s effects were in evidence again this week as a series of wildfires ravaged the West.” There’s your lede.
Journalists won’t develop that confidence on their own, no matter what “the science says.” Someone’s got to model that confidence for them. And I’m not sure the climate community is doing a great job on that score. I’m sorry, but “this is what we expect climate change to look like” just isn’t as confident as “this is climate change.” The fact that defensive, hedged language is now being rolled out as the official rhetoric of climate hawks is testament to the fact that scientists are driving the process.
Consider, though: Why should we all talk about these things the way scientists talk about them? Why should journalists talk that way?
George Orwell often pointed out that our language is full of “dead metaphors,” analogies that have become so familiar we effectively forget they are analogies and begin to use them literally. In a similar way, you might call facts “dead theories” — scientific theories that have become so familiar and well confirmed that they no longer present as theories, contested matters of hypothesis and conflicting evidence, but simply as facts about the world. When journalists begin treating climate change as a dead theory, that’s when we’ll know we’re making progress.