Talking Weather, Post Chitchat

How to talk about climate change and extreme weather.
This post is 1 in the series: Talking Weather and Climate


Talking about the weather has always been a favorite American pastime. But recent extreme weather events seem to have propelled us into a post chitchat era. With droughts, heat waves, dust storms, tornadoes, wildfires, and floods dominating the headlines, many folks are starting to talk about the weather with a sense of mystification—if not dread. And some are even beginning to connect the dots between extreme weather and scientific warnings about global warming.

Like many of you, I’ve been trying to sort out what extreme weather means for those of us who communicate regularly about climate and energy policy.

The post chitchat era poses both opportunities and risks. On the one hand, extreme weather is exactly what scientific climate models have predicted; and we shouldn’t shy away from pointing that out. On the other hand, while there’s data showing that temperatures are rising, it’s impossible to attribute any single weather event to climate change. There’s a risk of overstating the case or being accused of alarmism, opportunism, or exaggeration.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at how public figures, researchers, scientists, journalists and regular American voters are talking and thinking about the links between climate and severe weather, with an eye to developing some basic messaging guidelines for climate policy champions.

But first, the lay of the land.

Even with the sun (finally…occasionally) shining in the Northwest, it’s been hard to ignore the unusual flooding, wildfires, and drought that have been pummeling American communities lately—or, for that matter, the weird weather wreaking havoc across the globe. But it took a rash of tornadoes in the American heartland to draw mainstream attention to “weird weather” more generally. What’s emerged is a new kind of conversation about the impacts of climate change. (It should be noted that I made this assertion once before, way back in 2007—admittedly a bit prematurely.)

Of course, it was tornadoes—with all their gripping, heartbreaking violence and drama, that shocked us to attention. As Pew reported, the “tornadoes that ripped through the Midwest at the end of May dominated the public’s news interest”—by a wide margin—and received much more coverage than any other story that week. And, Joe Romm at Think Progress wrote, “the devastation of Joplin, MO has led to a super-storm of media stories on the link between climate change and extreme weather, including tornadoes.”

But, there’s a bit of a snag; while a warming atmosphere indeed creates the right conditions for more intense storms, when it comes to connecting extreme weather and climate trends, scientists have far more data linking other recent weather phenomena to a warming atmosphere. As a result, in the path of the “media storm” Romm describes was a lot of back and forth among climate insiders about tornadoes—particularly around what can and can’t be said conclusively and dissecting media coverage of the science.

But tornadoes are only part of the story. Heavy rainfall, drought, crop failures, and heat waves also take an enormous toll on human life and property.

The thing is that one need not get too far into the science (for more depth on that go here) to understand the basics. The New Yorker‘s climate specialist Elizabeth Kolbert describes it succinctly:

For decades, climate scientists have predicted that, as global temperatures rose, the side effects would include deeper droughts, more intense flooding, and more ferocious storms. The details of these forecasts are immensely complicated, but the underlying science is pretty simple. Warm air can hold more moisture. This means that there is greater evaporation. It also means that there is more water, and hence more energy, available to the system.

And the Center for American Progress makes the important link to human-made, climate-warming pollution:

Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas pollutants are turning up the heat on our planet. Scientists agree that the string of disastrous weather extremes this past year are the types of severe weather that will become more frequent or ferocious as the planet continues to warm.

But many scientists and journalists are still cautious—as are policy folks like me.

But the weather is happening. Thus the conversation is happening. So, the time is now for climate communicators to play a proactive role in parsing the science for laypeople and helping connect the dots—not only between climate and weather but also between weather and policy solutions to curb climate-warming emissions.

Stay tuned for a whole slew of reasons why it’s time to stop erring on the side of caution and to begin addressing the weather-climate connection in earnest in our communications, along with examinations of some possible approaches and frames, at look at public receptiveness to the weather-climate conversation, what messaging experts are saying, and—ultimately—my take on best practices.

If you have ideas for my list of climate-weather messaging DOS and DON’TS, please share them!

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  1. Alan Durning says:

    Great topic, Anna. My initial input.

    To me, the rhetorical imperative is that we begin to hang the moral burden of Joplin, Katrina, Arizona wildlifes, and other extreme weather around the necks of climate science deniers.

    Science requires final proof and exactitude, but morality has a broader logic. We make a moral judgment against parents who let a child play near traffic, not just against parents who let a child play near traffic AND that child gets hit. Just so, whether Joplin was worsened by climate change or not, to belittle the risks of our dirty energy economy is to take inexcusable risks with the lives of the innocent. To see the news footage from Joplin and STILL resist climate solutions is, it seems to me, unconscionable. Responsible men and women don’t endanger neighbors near and far with devastation. That’s not who we are.

    • civiletti says:

      This goes right to the heart of the matter. Climate cranks will be no more swayed by moral than by scientific arguments, but the large segment of population that is immobilized by manufactured controversy over the science should be moved by appeal to individual and societal responsibility to act prudently in the face of danger.

  2. Melissa Everett, Ph.D. says:

    Thanks to Sightline for beautiful research and discussion. Across the country, we learn a lot from the way you translate information into meaning and direction for strategic action. Pac NW readers, support Sightline!

    • MVParker says:

      Country-wide readers, support Sightline too! :-)

  3. Don Read says:

    Just a plug for a kindred author Bill McKibben who can provide another perspective for all of us seeking to understanding global warming.

  4. Eric Doherty says:

    Fahey wrote “it’s impossible to attribute any single weather event to climate change”

    I think this is a bit misleading, as the rest of the series will probably show. Science is about evidence, and is often based on probabilities. Is is now possible, in some cases to discuss how probable an event would have been without global warming. If an event would have been very improbable without global warming, scientists can ‘attribute’ the event to human caused global warming within some range of probability. The flooding in Pakistan last year is an example of this.

    The truth is more like “most often scientists can’t attribute a single weather event to climate change. But that is starting to change.”

    • Barry Saxifrage says:

      Agree. For example, the 2003 European heatwave that killed tens of thousands has now been linked with 90% probability to fossil fuel pollution destabilizing our climate system.

      The best statement on attribution I’ve seen is by NCAR’s Trenberth: “there is a systematic influence on all of these weather events now-a-days because of the fact that there is this extra water vapor lurking around in the atmosphere than there used to be say 30 years ago.”

      Another great analogy is to “loading the dice”. We are painting extra spots on the weather dice. Now the weather not only rolls 11 or 12 more often but it can also roll 13 and 14.

      • Alan Durning says:

        well put!

  5. MVParker says:

    The term “global warming” may be too poetic and cozy sounding, evoking an idyllic Garden of Eden-type place. If we want to get people riled up into let’s-do-something-about-this-now! type thinking, we may need to call it something like “global hell-hole” or “catastrophic climate change.”

  6. Levin Nock says:

    I look forward to learning a soundbite from your series, about a US climate policy that has a glimmer of hope. As in,
    “Yup, warmer air holds more water, so the weather’s getting weirder. That’s why we need (please fill in the blank) this year.”

  7. Dave says:

    One bit of research I would like to see is a run chart of the dates over time of various weather-related records from a large number (or all) of the cities in the US – record highs, record lows, record rain, record drought, etc. My gut feeling is that the frequency of “record-breaking events” has accelerated recently.

  8. MVP says:

    Rig the dice all ya want. In this particular case, Nature is catching the extra fly-balls (and mosquitoes) with her gigantic spiderweb-mitts! Behold:

  9. melissa says:

    the weather channel is sometimes confusing. One day they will say oh lite rain and then it rains as if the world will come to an end. Now they are saying Baltimore should prepare for the Irene hurricane. I dont know who to trust.

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