Last week, New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin provided a specific example of why scientists are reluctant to attribute single weather events to climate change. In a post about the calving of a massive iceberg from the Greenland’s Petermann Glacier on August 5, he quoted Andreas Muenchow, an oceanographer at the University of Delaware, who spotted the breakaway ice.
According to Muenchow, air temperatures had very little to do with the event, because the glacier is losing more 80 percent of its ice from below, where part of it floats on the ocean. In order to make the connection to global warming, one would need to prove that temperatures under the ice have increased, and Muenchow said he simply doesn’t have the data to do that. In a word of caution against getting ahead of the science, he added:
Global warming and climate change are very real and challenging problems, but it is foolish to assign every “visible” event to that catch-all phrase. It cheapens and discredits those findings where global warming is a real and immediate cause for observable phenomena. Details matter, in science as well as in policy.
Thankfully, there’s some indication that overwrought reporting isn’t needed to get policymakers and the public to sit up and think about the ramifications of manmade climate change. The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, and others have run blog posts and articles pointing out that Russian president Dimtry Medvedev seems to have reversed his position that climate change is not a priority.
“What’s happening with the planet’s climate right now needs to be a wake-up call to all of us, meaning all heads of state, all heads of social organizations, in order to take a more energetic approach to countering the global changes to the climate,” he said in late July, according to Time magazine.
Some of these articles are a bit too sanguine, however, and Climatewire deserves credit for talking to the World Wildlife Fund’s climate negotiator in Moscow, who thinks that “once the smoke clears” the Russian government will lose interest in doing anything about global warming. Political and public will are fickle things indeed. Nonetheless, outside Russia, other adamant opponents of addressing climate change are changing their positions, too.
A trip to Greenland this summer caused Michael Hanlon, science editor of the Daily Mail, to rethink his beliefs about global warming (tip o’ the hat to blogger Joss Garman, a Greenpeace campaigner in the U.K.). “I have long been something of a climate skeptic, but my views in recent years have shifted,” he wrote on Thursday. “For me, the most convincing evidence that something worrying is going on lies right here in the Arctic.”
In a separate post on Tuesday, Hanlon explained that he is still not alarmed by the prospect of global warming, and reminded readers that one hot summer does not an altered climate make. But he added that the trip Greenland had made the science “look a bit less equivocal.”
The Wonk Room’s Brad Johnson saw a similar, if less complete, change of tune in CNN meteorologist Chad Myers. While discussing the Russian heat wave with Rick Sanchez on Monday, Myers conceded that a “significant portion” of global warming is due to manmade greenhouse gas emissions. As Johnson pointed out, however, Myers flubbed an argument about solar activity as well, claiming that we are “now in a very hot sun cycle,” when in fact we are just coming out of a very dormant one.
Myers’ gaffe is yet another indication that there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of improving policymakers’, the public’s, and the media’s understanding of science. But the smart, accurate coverage of this summer’s weather, which placed the extreme events in proper climatic context, is a step in the right direction.