The first rule of talking about extreme weather
In the movie, the first rule of Fight Club was “you do not talk about Fight Club.” (That was also the second rule, in case anyone overlooked rule No. 1.) There’s long been a similar but unspoken rule for journalists and scientists when it comes to making a connection between extreme weather and climate change. Don’t talk about it.
But that’s changing. As one of the world’s top climate scientists, Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research — who has been exploring for years how greenhouse pollution influences extreme weather — testified to the joint presidential session on “Communicating Climate Change” (January 2011 in Seattle): “The odds have changed to make certain kinds of events more likely … It is not a well-posed question to ask, ‘Is it caused by global warming?’ or, ‘Is it caused by natural variability?’ Because it is always both.”
He notes that the media continue to issue highly misleading stories about how cold outbreaks, snow events, or one cold month nullifies global warming models, when “the big picture continues to indicate otherwise.”
It’s time to view all weather through the climate change lens, not least the extreme events that are costing us in lives and property.
So, here’s the first rule for talking extreme weather and climate.
Rule No. 1: Do talk about the climate-weather connection.
And here’s why, as concisely as I can …
People love to talk about the weather: The weather is not just for small talk anymore, but talking about it remains a favorite pastime (especially among Americans). In fact, I’d say we are a weather-obsessed culture. Why else would there be a Weather Channel and a slew of TV shows about extreme weather? Just about everybody talks about it, making the topic as good an entry point as we’re likely to see for a while into a broader conversation about climate impacts.
Weather is fundamental — and local: We talk about weather a lot, likely because it’s something that every one of us experiences in immediate, visceral, physical, and emotional ways. Weather is central to our sense of place, even our identity. It is something experienced and understood at the level of our core values: family, community, health, security.
Twisters and other disasters are one thing — emotionally wrenching, not only for the communities affected, but certainly for all of us empathetic onlookers as well. But consider, also, how a plain old summer day spent in a place you love can conjure profoundly personal emotions: happiness, well-being, hopefulness, nostalgia. If freakish weather and ever bigger extremes threaten our favorite places, our sense of security, our family, community, and our very identities are suddenly on the line.
One need only glance at the newspaper to get the feeling that something is going on when it comes to weird weather. So, it may well be that a broader swath of the public is tuning in in new ways. It’s time for a conversation about what current trends mean for our quality of life and our security — today, tomorrow, in five years, and in our kids’ lifetimes.
Doubt isn’t just for “big D” science deniers: One of the biggest challenges for climate communicators is shrinking an abstract, complicated, and global problem in time and place in order to instill a proper sense of urgency as well as a sense that action is both worthwhile and possible. In fact, this is one of the fundamental “brand challenges” of global warming, and the reason that I’ve long pleaded with climate communicators to stop talking about polar bears and stop saying “future generations.” It’s happening now. Our kids’ lives will be defined by climate impacts.
We know that climate change is abstract enough already, and even without our help it seems far away and distant. Even those of us who are fully committed to solutions and knowledgeable about climate science have a hard time imagining impacts during our lifetimes or in our own hometowns. (In fact, an inability to imagine a future different from the present may be a fact of how our brains are wired — and yes, that includes Climate Nerd brains.)
All that makes it difficult to stress the urgency of action to curb climate-warming emissions. For most of us, there are many more pressing concerns (jobs, rent, food, schools, gas prices) that take priority. Here’s how Andrew Revkin put it a year ago:
The sociologists speak of “issue salience” (read Helen Ingram), and global warming has little of this, no matter how many undistorted articles might be written. They also talk about humans’ “finite pool of worry,” and it’s hard to fit global warming, in which the clearest risks are still someday and somewhere, into that pool.
The weather takes a problem of astronomical proportions and makes it local and current — and far more concrete. Perhaps by agreeing on the more immediate imperatives required to protect ourselves and our assets, it’s easier to come to terms with the problem and to become more deeply committed to mitigation when seeing is believing.
It’s irresponsible not to mention climate change: It used to be that a person looked foolish if they mentioned weather and climate in the same sentence, so we shied away from making any links whatsoever. But that, too, is changing.
Weather is not climate. (Here’s NASA on the distinction: “The difference between weather and climate is a measure of time. Weather is what conditions of the atmosphere are over a short period of time, and climate is how the atmosphere ‘behaves’ over relatively long periods of time. When we talk about climate change, we talk about changes in long-term averages of daily weather.”) But, as time ticks on, it’s becoming nearly impossible to talk about one without considering the other — particularly in light of a mounting saga of extreme weather event
s made more likely or severe by a moister, warmer atmosphere.
As researchers for Center for American Progress put it, climate factors — including human influences — shape weather patterns. Trenberth went so far as to say that when we talk about the unusual weather that’s going on, it is “irresponsible not to mention climate change.”
Stay tuned for a discussion of how scientists and journalists who are making the climate-weather connection are framing it up. Also — weather and climate rule No. 2 is on the way.