Bad hippie!

Is it wrong to ‘scold’ exaggerations about climate and weather?

David Roberts has a long essay over at Grist complaining about “scolds” (The New York Times’s Andrew Revkin, in particular) who criticize others for making too much of the link between climate change and extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy.

Roberts’s commentary jumps off from a self-reflective post by Revkin about whether he is guilty of what one of his longtime sources, retired climate scientist Thomas Crowley, has called “reverse tribalism.” Roberts calls it “hippie punching” and as he explained, “it goes like this”:

An extreme weather event takes place; climate activists (and the occasional journalist) make a connection to climate change; and then, a pack of climate wonks and journalists descends, scolding activists for exaggerating, going overboard, exceeding the bounds of evidence, and “giving the other side ammunition.” (That last bit is crucial. The idea that the scolds are saving the activists from themselves is what gives the scolding a patina of public purpose. Otherwise it’s just self-righteous hectoring.)

It’s a thoughtful piece, but Roberts mischaracterizes what the scolds (and I count myself among them) are saying. A day before Revkin posted his piece about reverse tribalism, he’d written another one that warned against drawing too many conclusions about climate change from Hurricane Sandy. He also sent out a tweet saying, “Northeast storminess is not place to look for signals of greenhouse-driven global warming,” which prompted the following snarky reply from Roberts:

Revkin cited Roberts’s comment in his post and conceded, “I have sometimes perhaps been too eager to challenge definitive statements related to human-driven global warming for fear they will provide ammunition to those working to foment doubt and maintain stasis on our energy menu.” It should be clear, however, that in making those challenges, he and other scolds are not trying to “tamp down” discussions about climate change. They’re trying to steer them toward facts, and away from exaggerations, and this doesn’t mean, as Roberts put it, that everything has to be couched in “caveat-filled, probabilistic language.” But it does mean being accurate and precise (talking about specific knowns and unknowns rather than generalizing) and focusing on the big picture (the climatological context of a storm) rather than attribution (whether or not the event was “caused” by global warming).

For example, rather than writing that, “Sandy shows how climate change is increasing extreme weather around the world,” it’s better to write something like, “It’s unclear how climate change is affecting hurricanes, but global warming is undoubtedly causing sea level to rise, which exacerbates the storm surge from any cyclone that comes along.”

It seems like this is the kind of simple, contextualized explanation that Roberts wants, too. Like the scolds, he wants reporters to avoid the troubled waters of attribution stories and warns that asking if climate change caused an individual weather event is a “confusing question.” He also warns that when “climate hawks” answer that question with a simple, “yes,” they “cement that confusion.”

Unlike scolds, however, Roberts is willing to shrug off the simple, “yes,” and doesn’t think others should bother to explain the problems with it either. The reason is that be believes the debate about attribution science is really just a “semantic dispute over the meaning of ‘cause.’” To some extent, he’s right. Kevin Trenberth, a climatologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, is fond of saying that, “All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be.”

That’s true, but it’s not a very helpful statement. As Roberts himself explained in a post in June about attributing wildfires to climate change, events have proximate (first-order) and distal (second-order, third-order, etc.) causes. The proximate cause of a fire is a spark. The proximate cause of Hurricane Sandy was an unusual confluence of different weather systems. In both cases, climate change was a distal cause, but as Roberts noted in his post, the real question is, how distal? That’s what scientists are arguing about. Yet Roberts dismisses the importance of the question as soon as he acknowledges it. He argues that saying “climate change caused” a given weather event isn’t “necessarily false or exaggerated,” even if climate change is only a minor factor—it’s just “confusing.”

The scolds don’t see it that way. They think it’s worth explaining why climate is a fairly distal factor in storms like Sandy. But that doesn’t mean, as Roberts alleges, that scolds are calling for lots of talk about “stochastic modeling, forensic attribution, and degrees of probability,” or that they they’re opposed to providing “a visceral, more-than-intellectual sense of what climate change means.”

“Revkin seems to think that his allegiance to the journalist tribe means that he can’t communicate like this, in simple language with political, economic, and social resonance,” Roberts wrote. “Worse, he seems to think that being a journalist means he has to spend his time patrolling other people’s attempts at communicate and calling them out on reductive scientific grounds.”

Those are cheap shots. Revkin talks as much as anybody about the limitations of science journalism and how it’s a “shrinking slice of the media and communications pie.” And scolds don’t think being a journalist means you can’t communicate in simple, resonant language. Most of them applaud good work as vigorously as they criticize bad work, but they do think it’s worth criticizing the bad—not only because “the other side” could use exaggerations about weather as ammo against campaigns to address climate change, but also because they worry that the exaggerations can nurture an insidious form of misunderstanding within the general public.

Its also seems like Roberts, a foe of those who deny the science behind climate change, is calling for a bit of a double standard wherein critics should call out distortions from the right (global warming stopped 15 years ago!) but not from the left (Sandy is evidence of the new normal!). Granted, the subtle embellishments on the left are nothing compared to the full-bore disinformation campaign on the right, but the embellishments still frustrate plenty of scientists. (Update: Some undoubtedly cringed when they saw Bloomberg Businessweek’s bold, red cover featuring a photo of a flooded New York street in the aftermath of Sandy with the words, “It’s Global Warming, Stupid,” above it.]

In fact, though, many journalists have, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, produced exactly the kind of work that scolds are calling for. Examples can be found at The Associated Press, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. These aren’t jargon-filled articles that dissuade readers from making any connections between the cyclone and climate change. They emphasize that the connections are complex, but they also convey that Sandy is a legitimate reason to be concerned about global warming despite the complexity.

It’s worth applauding this type of journalism, but it’s equally important to scold work that doesn’t live up to such high standards.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , , ,