There’s an article in the New Republic called the media’s failure to connext the dots on climate change. I actually came across it via a blog post by Matthew Nisbet in which he argues that [Why] The New Republic is wrong to argue for journalists to label every extreme weather event and disaster as linked to climate change. Not only do I think he slightly misrepresents what the New Republic article is suggesting, I also think what they suggest is mostly quite reasonable. I’ll try to explain why.
Climate change is clearly happening and it is mainly driven by our emission of greenhouse gases (mostly CO2) into the atmosphere. Doing so causes atmospheric CO2 to increase, reducing the outgoing energy flux and causing energy to accumulate in the climate system. This will lead to warming of the surface and troposphere, increasing ocean heat content (and increasing sea surface temperatues), an increase in evaporation, an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events, and a change in the latitudonal temperature gradient that has the potential to influence the jet stream and, hence, weather patterns. This means that in regions that are susceptible to extreme weather events, the conditions will increasingly tend to favour these events becoming more extreme.
I will admit that we could sometimes be more careful about how we associate climate change and extreme events, and there will almost certainly be situations in which it’s not really appropriate to include some discussion of climate change. However, climate change is clearly changing the environment in which these extreme events are occuring and, in many situations, leading to conditions that make it likely that we will see an increase in both the frequency and intensity of such events.
I think it’s important that this is understood. Even if we cannot definitively attribute a climate change link to a specific event does not mean that we can’t discuss how climate change is likely to impact such events and whether or not we’re seeing changes that are consistent with what is expected. If we want to make ourselves more resilient to such events, then it would seem important to understand how climate change is likely to influence them. Furthermore, until we get net emissions to almost zero, the climate will continue to change and we will likely continue to see an increase in the frequency and intensity of many of these extreme weather events.
To be clear, maybe I misunderstand some of what is being suggested. Also, maybe there are subtle reason why avoiding associating extreme events with climate change will somehow help us to become more resilient to these events. On the other hand, I do find it difficult to understand how avoiding discussing a climate change link will somehow help us to develop policies that effectively address this issue. Maybe I’m just a naive physicist (okay, yes I probably am) but if we do want to think about how to address the risks associated with climate change, then we really should be discussing it openly so as to help the public, and policy makers, better understand how it is likely to impact us, both now and in the future.