It should come as no surprise that as Hurricane Sandy spiraled up the eastern seaboard, a variety of media outlets sought to explain the so-called super storm’s relationship to climate change. A few did well, but generalizations about extreme weather continue to mar this type of coverage.
Take Rebecca Leber’s attempt to bash the press for ignoring climate change at Climate Progress. “Despite the hysteria surrounding Hurricane Sandy,” she wrote, “not one major newspaper has reported the scientifically established link that carbon pollution fuels more extreme weather.”
That assertion about an established link is misleading. In reality, climate change fuels some extreme weather in some places, and the links are not very well understood. As Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler and NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, put it in a blog post for RealClimate.org last year:
Not all extremes are the same. Discussions of ‘changes in extremes’ in general without specifying exactly what is being discussed are meaningless. A tornado is an extreme event, but one whose causes, sensitivity to change and impacts have nothing to do with those related to an ice storm, or a heat wave or cold air outbreak or a drought.
There is no theory or result that indicates that climate change increases extremes in general. This is a corollary of the previous statement - each kind of extreme needs to be looked at specifically - and often regionally as well.
Even some of the best reporters continue to generalize extremes, despite these crystal-clear warnings that they shouldn’t. In a post for The New Yorker, for instance, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote:
As with any particular “weather-related loss event,” it’s impossible to attribute Sandy to climate change. However, it is possible to say that the storm fits the general pattern in North America, and indeed around the world, toward more extreme weather, a pattern that, increasingly, can be attributed to climate change.
Kolbert not only misleads readers to believe that climate change increases all extremes everywhere, but after asserting that Hurricane Sandy “fits” this “general pattern,” she cites a recent paper about heat waves to support her claim. It’s a classic bait-and-switch and totally irresponsible since the dynamics of heat waves are very different from those of hurricanes.
Adam Frank did much better in a post for NPR where he eschewed the temptation to generalize about extremes and placed tropical cyclones in their proper context.
“There is a hierarchy of weather events which scientists feel they understand well enough for establishing climate change links,” he wrote. “Global temperature rises and extreme heat rank high on that list, but hurricanes rank low.”
Climate change also plays a part, but it’s a complicated role indeed (see Andrew Revkin’s post at The New York Times for details). In a widely quoted paper published in March, Kevin Trenberth, a scientist in the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research wrote:
The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question. All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be.
Saying that climate change affects all weather is different than saying that climate change increases extremes in general, though. As Trenberth put it, “It is when natural variability and climate change develop in the same direction that records get broken.” With Hurricane Sandy, he wrote in a guest post for Climate Progress, climate change “contributed” (on the order of 5 to 10 percent) to unusually high ocean temperatures in the Atlantic, which meant more moisture in the atmosphere and thus more rainfall. In other words, natural variability provided the “optimal conditions” for a huge storm, which were “enhanced by global warming.”