Many articles (such as a good one from Scientific American) also did excellent work explaining why these types of modeling experiments are so difficult, and why results pertaining to particular phenomena cannot be used to extrapolate conclusions about other weather events, or weather in general. According to the Times, for instance:
That it took a decade to come to that conclusion [about the flood in the U.K. 2000] illustrates one of the major problems of climate science at the moment. Researchers are barraged with questions about weather extremes like the recent winters in Europe and the United States and the heat waves and droughts of last summer.
Yet, even when adequate weather statistics are available for an affected region, the scientists need years to run computer analyses of any specific event and calculate whether it was made more or less likely by global warming.
As many articles noted, one of climate modelers’ central goals is to improve their research methodologies to the point where they can analyze severe weather in real time. But that ability is still a ways off, which bring us back to the Seattle PostGlobe’s question about whether or not the Times was remiss to neglect a mention of climate change in its article about the severe drought currently afflicting China. The fact is, reporters simply cannot make such connections without evidence, and (as far as I can tell) nobody has performed a truly robust analysis of the Chinese drought.
Peer-reviewed analyses are not the only kind of evidence available to journalists, however. If a qualified scientist tells a reporter that he or she feels there is connection between a weather event and climate change, the reporter is perfectly free to quote the scientist saying that. For example, Xu Yinlong, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, told the Los Angeles Times, “This drought is occurring in front of the big backdrop of global warming and is part of the phenomenon of extreme weather events. The direct cause is months of lack of rainfall, but it definitely is connected with climate change.”
Such opinions are perfectly valid. Indeed, following last summer’s devastating heat wave in Russian and flood in Pakistan, CJR observed that news outlets avoided the temptation to pin the events on climate change, limiting themselves to the statement that scientists merely expect their frequency and intensity to increase in a warmer world. In a round of day-two stories, however, some journalists dug deeper, finding a number of scientists who were willing to go out on a limb.
“If you ask me as a person, do I think the Russian heat wave has to do with climate change, the answer is yes,” NASA’s Schmidt told The New York Times. “If you ask me as a scientist whether I have proved it, the answer is no — at least not yet.”
Such reporting should be commended, as long as it puts these quotes in their proper context, laying out the nuance, complexity, and uncertainty that surround them. In a roundup of coverage of the two Nature studies, the Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Charlie Petit observed that “An official shift may just have occurred not only in news coverage of climate change, but the way that careful scientists talk about it.” He’s probably right, and while that shift doesn’t mean that reporters have carte blanche to link global warming to extreme weather without any supporting evidence, it does mean, as Freedman put it in his post for the Capital Weather Gang, that:
At the same time, ignoring the growing evidence that certain types of extreme events are already shifting, or claiming that a single study proves there is no climate change link with extreme weather - as a Wall Street Journal op-ed writer did last week - is also flat out wrong, and not just because of the two studies published last week (don’t just take my word for it, the authors of the study published a letter to the editor late yesterday correcting some of the writer’s misconception).