Both-sidesing the climate story

The recent storms in California have been tragic, killing at least nineteen people and soaking nearly the entire state, including cities, such as Palm Springs, that are more used to drought. But is climate change driving it?

It is maddening that, this far into the climate crisis, news outlets continue to dither as to whether a single weather event is related to the now-undeniable, violent changes in Earth’s weather. Did the warming of the planet produce the water that pulled a five-year-old boy from his mother’s arms as he was on his way to school in San Luis Obispo County on Monday? It no doubt had a role. Is the cause and effect immediately and directly provable, on a chart or in a document? Of course not.

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The overwhelming scientific consensus is that Earth is warming, that man-made causes are to blame, and that one result is more extreme weather precisely like what we’ve seen this week on the West Coast. And yet the search for definitive causation—for hard proof that global shifts in climate produced a single event in one corner of one town—has become an odious tendency among journalists looking to create tension when there is none. It recalls efforts to normalize the presidency of Donald Trump, with political journalists and pundits debating whether this outrage or that was as bad as it looked, even as evidence piled up that his presidency was damaging the nation’s democracy.

Journalists no longer need to both-sides the climate question. Many outlets don’t; this week, for example, Scientific American clearly conveyed that the California weather is the new normal. That would seem to be the story worth telling.

Scientists are doing their part to end the mystery; attribution science, which helps link local weather events to broader shifts, is gaining in sophistication and understanding. Help is also coming from local TV weathercasters who have emerged as unexpected heroes in efforts to more effectively tell the climate story. TV meteorologists are often the most trusted media figures in their markets, and the closest thing to a scientist many viewers see. The fact that they spend all day staring at the weather gives them unusual credibility in calling out changes on the ground.

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In 2019, Lucy Schiller profiled one such TV meteorologist, Eric Sorensen, for CJR. Sorensen was a trusted voice in an Iowa community that had broken for Trump in 2016 and had its share of climate skeptics. It had also experienced severe flooding in the months before we published Schiller’s profile.

Sorensen knew his audience, and knew that alarmism wouldn’t work—but nor was he willing to ignore the broader changes that were evident to him. As Schiller wrote:

One gets the sense, spending time with Sorensen, that he’s interested in matters of scale. In how to present, as a broadcast meteorologist beloved in this corner of the river, the global climate crisis in ways that make sense to his community and, inversely, in how to translate local weather events into larger climate patterns. 

For Sorensen, the big story, of the shift in our global climate, was the one worth telling, with examples plucked from what he was seeing on the ground. “One of the things that I’ve learned,” he told Schiller, “is that people who don’t understand climate change, it doesn’t have to do with being ignorant, it has to do with experiencing it firsthand.”

Last year, Sorensen was elected to Congress as a Democrat in an Illinois district that includes Rockford, where he grew up and worked as a meteorologist before moving to Iowa.

I believe that the climate story is one of the most important of our time. It’s the reason that CJR cofounded Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration aimed at producing more and better climate coverage, and it’s why CJR aggressively covers how newsrooms are tackling the climate story.

The importance of the climate story crystallizes at a moment like this, when the effects of a shifting climate are playing out in the most populous state in the country. That story is compelling enough. You can check out Covering Climate Now here, and find Schiller’s great profile of Eric Sorensen here.


Other notable stories:

Finally, a programming note: This newsletter will be off Monday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. We’ll see you on Tuesday.

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Kyle Pope is the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.

TOP IMAGE: Downtown Davenport on May 3, 2019. Photo by Casey Austin Photography.