Like Schmidt in the Times, both Tobis and Carver are inching out onto a limb here, which is fine (the limb seems to grow sturdier by the day), but The Wonk Room’s decision to use a “guess” and “hunch” to declare that “climate experts agree [that] global warming caused the Russian heat wave” is grossly misleading. Likewise, I recently received a memorandum from Friend of the Earth, an environmental group, addressed to “journalists covering extreme and unusual weather events.” It argued that:
Some media outlets have now begun to examine the connections between the extreme weather and climate change, but this story merits more coverage and in-depth reporting. The connections between a warming climate and extreme weather are unambiguous, and the media has a duty to connect the dots.
I would agree that this story merits more in-depth reporting, and the media have a duty to connect the dots between extreme weather and climate change. Those connections are not “unambiguous,” however. Stott, the head of the U.K.’s Met Office, had a great column in the Guardian last week, explaining that while he and colleagues were able to demonstrate that the European heat wave of 2003 would have been likely without global warming:
For some other types of extreme weather there is a need for more research. For example, circulation changes could mean that some extreme weather events become less, not more likely under climate change. Better understanding of which extreme weather events are part of normal variations rather than of a developing pattern of climate change effects will help societies adapt to the challenges of ongoing climate change. Next week in Colorado, experts from the UK and US forecasting centres at the Met Office and NOAA will meet to consider how we can provide better information on the causes of extreme weather in near-real time.
Until more research is hand reporting that the weather-climate connection is “unambiguous” will only sow confusion. Moreover, journalists don’t need to overreach in order to be agenda setters. The Times’s front-page article was a great example of how reporters can highlight scientists’ growing suspicion that global warming is steadily raising the baseline for wild temperature swings while also being honest about the limitations of their current knowledge.
Other papers are making similar efforts, pointing out weather-climate connections without overplaying them. Take the very laudable opinion column by the editor of the Albany Times Union, Rex Smith, apparently penned in response to readers’ complaints about a front-page Associated Press article the paper ran last week, explaining that this summer’s extreme weather jibes with climatologists predictions about a warmer world. In it, Smith writes:
Let’s be clear, as the Associated Press article we published was: You can’t blame climate change for any single weather event — not for last year’s wet summer here, for example, nor for the disasters that have befallen various corners of the world this summer. But scientists say that a warmer world is one where extreme weather events are more likely to occur, and that’s what we’re seeing nowadays…
The topic is worthy of greater exposition than I can offer here, but in terms of our reporting, the principle at stake is simple: Even if what we need to know isn’t what we want to hear, it’s quite simply what we are owed by anyone who professes to practice good journalism.
Thankfully, many editors appear to be of the same mind as Smith—ready to let their reporters delve into a complex subject that defies easy answers in order to deliver nuanced stories that stress scientists’ concerns about extreme weather and place them in proper climatic context.