The First Rule of Talking Extreme Weather

It's time to talk about climate and weather. Here's why.
This post is 4 in the series: Talking Weather and Climate
Flood, KConnors,

Flood, KConnors,

In the movie, the first rule of Fight Club was “you do not talk about Fight Club.” (That was also the second rule in case anyone overlooked rule #1.) There’s long been a similar but unspoken rule for journalists and scientists when it comes to making a connection between extreme weather and climate change. Don’t talk about it.

But that’s changing. As one of the world’s top climate scientists, Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who has been exploring for years how greenhouse pollution influences extreme weather, testified to the Joint Presidential Session on Communicating Climate Change (January, 2011 in Seattle, Washington), “the odds have changed to make certain kinds of events more likely…It is not a well posed question to ask ‘is it caused by global warming?’ or ‘is it caused by natural variability?’ Because it is always both.”

He notes that the media continue to issue highly misleading stories about how cold outbreaks, snow events, or one cold month nullifies global warming models, when “the big picture continues to indicate otherwise.”

It’s time to view all weather through the climate change lens, not least the extreme events that are costing us in lives and property.

So, here’s the first rule for talking extreme weather and climate:


Here’s why, as concisely as I can…

People love to talk about the weather.

The weather is not just for small talk anymore, but talking about it remains a favorite pastime (especially among Americans). In fact, I’d say we are a weather-obsessed culture. Why else would there be a Weather Channel and a slew of shows on television about extreme weather? Just about everybody talks about it, making the topic as good an entry point as we’re likely to see for a while into a broader conversation about climate impacts.

Weather is fundamental—and local.

We talk about weather a lot likely because it’s something that every one of us experiences in immediate, visceral, physical, and emotional ways. Weather is central to our sense of place, even our identity. It is something experienced and understood at the level of our core values: family, community, health, security.

Twisters and other disasters are one thing—emotionally wrenching, not only for the communities affected but certainly for all of us empathetic onlookers as well. But, consider also how a plain old summer day spent in a place you love can conjure profoundly personal emotions: happiness, well-being, hopefulness, nostalgia. If freakish weather and ever bigger extremes threaten our favorite places, our sense of security, our family,  community and our very identities are suddenly on the line.

One need only glance at the newspaper to get the feeling that something is going on when it comes to weird weather. So, it may well be that a broader swath of the public is tuning in in new ways. It’s time for a conversation about what current trends mean for our quality of life and our security—today, tomorrow, in five years, and in our kids’ lifetimes.

Doubt isn’t just for “big D” science deniers.

One of the biggest challenges for climate communicators is shrinking an abstract, complicated, and global problem in time and place in order to instill a proper sense of urgency as well as a sense that action is both worthwhile and possible. In fact, this is one of the fundamental “brand challenges” of global warming, and the reason that I’ve long pleaded with climate communicators to stop talking about polar bears and stop saying “future generations.” It’s happening now. Our kids’ lives will be defined by climate impacts.

We know that climate change is abstract enough already, and even without our help it seems far away and distant. Even those of us who are fully committed to solutions and knowledgeable about climate science have a hard time imagining impacts during our lifetimes or in our own hometowns. (In fact, an inability to imagine a future different from the present may be a fact of  how our brains are wired—and yes, that includes Climate Nerd brains.)

All that makes it difficult to stress the urgency of action to curb climate-warming emissions. For most of us, there are many more pressing concerns (jobs, rent, food, schools, gas prices) that take priority. Here’s how Andrew Revkin put it a year ago: “The sociologists speak of ‘issue salience’ (read Helen Ingram here) and global warming has little of this, no matter how many undistorted articles might be written. They also talk about humans’ ‘finite pool of worry,’ and it’s hard to fit global warming, in which the clearest risks are still  someday and somewhere, into that pool.”

The weather takes a problem of astronomical proportions and makes it local and current—and far more concrete. Perhaps by agreeing on the more immediate imperatives required to protect ourselves and our assets, it’s easier to come to terms with the problem and to become more deeply committed to mitigation when seeing is believing.

It’s irresponsible not to mention climate change.

It used to be that a person looked foolish if they mentioned weather and climate in the same sentence, so we shied away from making any links whatsoever. But, that too is changing.

Weather is not climate (Here’s NASA on the distinction: “The difference between weather and climate is a measure of time. Weather is what conditions of the atmosphere are over a short period of time, and climate is how the atmosphere ‘behaves’ over relatively long periods of time. When we talk about climate change, we talk about changes in long-term averages of daily weather.”)  But, as time ticks on, it’s becoming nearly impossible to talk about one without considering the other—particularly in light of a mounting saga of extreme weather events made more likely or severe by a moister, warmer atmosphere.

As researchers for Center for American Progress put it, climate factors—including human influences—shape weather patterns. Kevin Trenberth went so far as to say that when we talk about the unusual weather that’s going on, it is “irresponsible not to mention climate change.”

Stay tuned for a discussion of how scientists and journalists who are making the climate-weather connection are framing it up. Also—Weather and Climate Rule #2 is on the way.


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  1. Scott says:

    Thank you for articulating this obvious truth.

  2. Timothy Colman says:

    Thanks for your fine writing. I came to the end of the story and wondered if you had thought of developing a speakers bureau to encourage more people to speak up. I was thinking of something with a slide show, less concerned with Ted Talks and more interested in seeing your ideas flourish at Rotary, Kiwanis, and Chamber of Commerce meetings.

    I set up and ran something similar in a campaign for a gas tax across Colorado back in the 1980’s. What I liked was how easy it was to connect with local media after giving a 20 minute talk at the local gathering. I flew around the state in that case and set up 30 meetings. What I imagined for your messages about the climate impact brand is a group of trained volunteers who can organize training sessions and a speakers bureau.

    So you end up getting a message focused to leaders in the community at the meeting, and then can talk afterwards with local media and talk about the connections between weather and climate.

    Keep up the good work.



  3. Critical Disbeliever says:

    Here’s an idea. Why not sacrifice virgins atop pyramids. That will reduce carbon emissions.

    • Mike O'Brien says:

      Critical Disbieliver is an internet troll. Ignore him and he will shrink to dust.

  4. KC says:

    I love the United States.
    That said, its a shame that we can’t seem to find anyone here that is smarter than a 5th grader lol. The concept of weather & climate being to different yet related things should be common sense. But the concept of our past effected our present and our present affects our future should also be common sense. If the majority of people can’t wrap their brains around the idea that every action has a reaction…maybe we should start treating them (Americans anyway) as children.
    Instead of telling them the harm that are doing by constantly reminding them of the problems on our planet (weather disasters, melting ice, polar bears becoming extinct, etc.) Maybe we should try rewarding them for what they ARE doing to try to help fight the problems.
    “Who recycled today?… Who recycled today?”
    “Thats a good little human!!”
    “You reduced your carbon foot print?”
    “What a good little American you are! If you keep up the good behavior, you may get to see a polar bear in the future!”

  5. Dan Bentler says:

    I do not know the truth about climate change. Is what we are seeing
    completely irreversible
    the fault of human kind
    OR is it a cycle that happens no matter what

    What I am sure of is
    All combustion process result in water and carbon dioxide.
    The atmospheric CO2 concentration as measured in Hawaii has risen and the central tendancy of the curve is upward.

    we need to stop wasting energy ie the American use it once and dump it. Examples
    1. your clothes dryer use 3 to 4 kW and dump the heat outdoors.
    2. Shower water use warm water and dump to sewer
    3 How much heat total do we run up the chimney from our home heating appliances?

    Everyone complains about industry. I think it is much more than that but I never see any numbers regarding how much pollution we make and dump on someone else at our homes.

  6. Barry Saxifrage says:

    Great article. Completely agree. Kudos.

    One of the most interesting psychological insights emerging from Americans’ reactions to climate change is that people are cherry picking info to match their desired social/economic/political world they want to live in. It isn’t a battle over science facts for many…it is instead a battle over maintaining a worldview.

    The notion that the weather might be getting more extreme permanently directly threatens most Americans’ view of the social/economic world they do want to live in regardless of political leanings.

    And the most interesting aspect of this to me is that the cherry picking by Americans on extreme weather is now working in favor of acting on climate change. The best example is the big tornado outbreaks. The science is unclear how much climate is driving these…but the people I talk to don’t care about the details. They care that it COULD be happening and it really really sucks.

    Just like accurate climate science facts don’t move deniers if their worldview is threatened…so nit-picking on details of climate science attribution by deniers to downplay extreme weather links probably won’t move people who are concerned that climate change might be causing freak weather events including tornadoes and earthquakes (both possible but not proven at all).

    For once, climate action seems to be getting the benefit of the doubt with the American psyche.

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