Snow Fights

Storm coverage muddles politics and science

Last week, in a front-page story, The New York Times responded to the latest instance of global warming skeptics seizing on big snowstorms in the east to argue that the threat of rising temperatures is all cock and bull.

The piece, by John Broder, was undoubtedly another well-intentioned attempt to explain how people will distort the difference between weather and climate to suit their own ends. Yet I agreed with the Center for Environmental Journalism’s Tom Yulsman (who also credited the article’s intent) when he wrote that day that the Times had “made a mess of science and politics right on page 1.”

After quoting the article’s lede, about the snowstorm-induced climate feuding, Yulsman rightly observed that “What follows in the story is a debate between political partisans — and what little actual science there is in the story gets crushed in between.”

Indeed, Broder’s sources included Senator James Inhofe and bloggers Matt Drudge, Joe Romm, and Jeff Masters. The latter two figures certainly know much more about climate change than the former two, so it is regrettable to have to lump them together. Romm, for instance, made the astute point on his blog that the Times’s headline, which implied that the snowy east was in a “deep freeze,” was flawed—temperatures haven’t been terribly low despite the snow. Nonetheless, the Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Charlie Petit had it right when he wrote that “this ferocious blogger and take-no-prisoners banger of pots and pans over the urgency of global warming is too openly politically partisan to be called in this context a working scientist.”

As a result of the political bend, the top half of Broder’s article contains little more than banter. Masters deserves credit for finally compelling Broder to get to the point toward the end, where he paraphrases the meteorologist explaining, “that the recent snows do not, by themselves, demonstrate anything about the long-term trajectory of the planet. Climate is, by definition, a measure of decades and centuries, not months or years.”

That’s really all that needs to be said, and if you’re going to say more, you should at least say that first. Letting partisan players hurl political snowballs at each other for paragraphs on end is just confusing. That produced a story a few days later that was far more skeptical of global warming than Broder’s, but displayed similar sourcing patterns, indicates the direction the Times was headed. What readers needed was a much more straightforward story about the limitations of discerning climate trends in weather. But, as Yulsman put it, “I’m guessing that if Broder had approached the story in this way, it never would have made it to page one.”

(It’s tempting to say that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, which also “covered” the snowstorms, were more enlightening than the Times, offering simple, comedic mockery of the confusion between weather and climate.)

On Friday, a good story by the Associated Press surveyed the incredible amounts of snow covering forty-nine of the fifty states without falling into the climate-politics trap. The article described scientists combing through data for information about past records and delved into the actual phenomenon—El Nino and the Arctic Oscillation—that explain the widespread snow.

Just before the end—referring to Dan Petersen, lead winter weather forecaster at the National Weather Service prediction center in Camp Springs, Md. and David Robinson, the head of the Global Snow Lab at Rutgers University in New Jersey—the AP piece included two succinct graphs about climate:

A snowy winter doesn’t disprove — or prove — global warming, Petersen and Robinson said. This is weather, which is variable, not long-term climate, and there is a huge difference.

“This has nothing to do with long-term trends,” Petersen said. “This is just a several-week period.”

‘Nuff said. Or not. On Sunday, The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank was echoing Broder’s work in a column which quoted Romm and Masters, among others. It didn’t add much, but contained a more forceful, albeit campy, declaration that skeptics’ use of the recent snows to refute global warming. The column’s other strong suit was that it held environmentalists equally culpable for using events such as the lack of snow at the Winter Olympics to prove it.

Indeed, no single weather event proves or disproves global warming, but it has become common practice for journalists to write that some storms are “consistent with” with global warming. In the last few days a number of reporters have responded to skeptics’ suggestions that global warming is bunk by pointing out that some scientists think heavy snowstorms could become more common in a warmer world. That is because warm air holds more moisture and it doesn’t need to be very cold to snow.

The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Time, and NPR handled the climate-snowstorms argument fairly responsibility by keeping the discussion theoretical. In other words, they used the recent weather as a reason for bringing it up, but avoided saying that the weather was the result of global warming.

A few opinion pages, on the other hand, got carried away. On Sunday, The Washington Post ran an op-ed by environmental activist Bill McKibben under the ridiculous headline, “Washington’s snowstorms, brought to you by global warming.” The Baltimore Sun was even worse. In a op-ed there, Mike Tidwell, the executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, wrote that “the growing pattern of extreme snowfall in our region has the fingerprints of climate change all over it.”

No, it doesn’t. It is currently impossible to tease the climate signal out of short-term, regional weather patterns. To discern humanity’s contribution to climate change, scientists still need decades’ worth of data collected from around the globe. So while it’s worthwhile to examine the current state of scientific opinion related to how climate change will affect storm patterns, reporting that climate change caused the snows in the east, or the lack thereof in Vancouver, is just wrong.

Taking into account all the above considerations, it’s unfortunate that weather events are so often the peg for articles exploring our knowledge about the connections between climate and various types of storms. While weather helps draw attention to climate issues, it also inflames political passions—and, as Milbank put it in his column, “Argument-by-anecdote isn’t working.”

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.