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PORTSIDE  August 2010, Week 2

PORTSIDE August 2010, Week 2

Subject:

Media Put Heat, Floods in Proper Climatic Context

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Date:

Fri, 13 Aug 2010 21:52:07 -0400

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Temperate Coverage of Extreme Weather
Media put heat, floods in proper climatic context

By Curtis Brainard
The Observatory - August 12, 2010 03:56 PM
http://www.cjr.org/the_observatory/temperate_coverage_of_extreme.php

More and more, reporters have been asking whether or
not climate change could be responsible for this
summer's extreme weather. Thankfully, most have
resisted the temptation to pin the events directly to
global warming, placing them in proper climatic context
instead.

For the last week, news outlets around the world have
churned out stories about record-setting temperatures
and blazing infernos around Moscow as well as flooding
in Pakistan that the United Nations called the worst
humanitarian crisis in recent history. To a lesser
extent, there have also been plenty of reports about
rain-induced landslides in China, severe droughts in
sub-Saharan Africa, and the calving of an enormous
iceberg from the Greenland ice sheet.

"The occurrence of all these events at almost the same
time raises questions about their possible linkages to
the predicted increase in intensity and frequency of
extreme events" laid out in the Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change's (IPCC) 2007 assessment report, the
World Meteorological Organization (WMO) reported
Wednesday.

Indeed, before the WMO even made that observation,
reporters were seeking out scientific sources that
could provide answers. Articles and blog posts from
Reuters, The Washington Post, Agence France-Presse, the
Telegraph, BBC News, the Associated Press, New
Scientist, and The Economist have all come to the same
basic conclusion: While no single weather event can be
attributed to climate change, more extreme weather
events can be expected in a warmer world, and the ones
we've seen this summer fit the IPCC's predictions.

The contributions from New Scientist and The Economist
are among the best of the bunch. Unlike some of the
others, which explore the indeterminate climate
connection but leave it that, they both explain
(quoting from the latter) that "The immediate cause of
the [the Russian heat wave and Pakistani flood, which
appear to be linked] is the behavior of the jet stream,
a band of high-level wind that travels east around the
world and influences much of the weather below it."

Basically, the jet stream's current pattern has become
"blocked," as meteorologists put it, by north-south
airflows high in the atmosphere. As a result, a high-
pressure "ridge" has become locked in place over
western Russia (with cooler than average temperatures
to the east). The ridge intensifies the hot and dry
conditions on the ground, which, in turn, intensify the
ridge in a positive feedback loop. Meteorologists Jeff
Masters and Rob Carver offered technical but useful
explanations of the situation at Weather Underground,
and an explanation of blocking is available at the
National Weather Service's Web site.

Peter Stott, the head of the climate monitoring and
attribution at the U.K.'s Met Office, had an
enlightening column in the Guardian explaining why the
Russian heat wave and Pakistani floods might be linked,
and delved into their connection to climate change.
Wired Science's Brandon Keim delivered a nice, clear
explanation of the linkage between the weather events
in Asia as well.

There were missteps, of course. The Telegraph mentioned
the jet stream's role in extreme weather, but its
importance was obscured by the paper's unfortunate
decision to run the headline, "Climate change experts
say global warming could be the cause." Worse still was
the BBC, which didn't mention the jet stream at all (it
only referred to "circulation anomalies") and ran the
headline, "Climate change `partly to blame' for
sweltering Moscow." Such language-which suggests that
we can, in fact, attribute specific weather events to
global warming-should be strictly avoided.

Still, almost every outlet eschewed the temptation to
say, "Look there! I give you global warming!" The New
York Times's Tom Zeller, Jr. saw that temptation coming
at the end of July. In a smart piece for The Week in
Review, he reminded readers that climate skeptics had
seized on unusually cold weather last winter in order
to mock climate science, and warned against resorting
to such antics in support of it:

     In any debate over climate change, conventional
     wisdom holds that there is no reflex more absurd
     than invoking the local weather.

    And yet this year's wild weather fluctuations seem
    to have motivated people on both sides of the issue
    to stick a finger in the air and declare the matter
    resolved - in their favor.

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 than 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.

_____________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest
to people on the left that will help them to
interpret the world and to change it.

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