Why people are confused about climate change

Temperature departures from average from March 8-15. (NASA image, lazily pilfered from Climate Central)

Last spring, I wrote about how asking whether climate change “caused” a weather event is simply a bad question:

A better question might be, “how likely would this weather event have been if not for global warming?” Or, “as the atmosphere warms, will this sort of thing become more frequent?”

As we are confronted with yet another outbreak of off-the-charts bizarre weather, it doesn’t look like reporters are doing much better on this front. At least, not if this story from yesterday’s New York Times is any indication:

The rapid mating cycle started a few years ago, said Jeffry Mitton, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. He and other researchers blame climate change. Some meteorologists suspect the warm weather is an effect of recent solar flares. Still others say the early spring is part of the weather pattern known as La Niña. And then there is the explanation from the National Weather Service: a large subtropical high-pressure system is lingering above the western Atlantic, blocking cold air from blowing down.

Whatever the reason, the early weather is throwing all kinds of ritual spring activities off kilter.

Wow, can’t those scientists and meteorologists get their acts together?

The problem here is that the reporter is treating these explanations as mutually exclusive, when they’re not (except maybe the solar flare thing). Nothing about the immediate weather phenomena leading to the heat wave is inconsistent with a warming atmosphere.

It’s a bit like saying: “Some say it’s snowing because it’s winter. Others say it’s because there’s moisture falling from the sky. Whatever the reason, we’re going to have some shoveling to do tomorrow!”

It’s frustrating that while the Times has ample column inches to tell us about restaurant patrons who are confused about why they can’t get fresh asparagus in March, it can’t take the two or three sentences needed to make the relationship between weather and climate clear. Andrew Freedman of Climate Central shows how it’s done:

Although studies have not yet been conducted on the main factors that triggered this heat wave and whether global warming may have tilted the odds in favor of the event, scientific studies of previous heat events clearly show that global warming increases the odds of heat extremes, in much the same way as using steroids boosts the chances that a baseball player will hit more home runs in a given year.

See? Not that hard.

There’s a big difference between carefully reflecting the genuine uncertainties of climate science and obtusely sowing confusion about it.

Comments are closed.