‘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.”