Navigating a Climate Minefield

Andrew Freedman of the WaPo’s Capital Weather Gang nicely captures my philosophy:

I’ve never been a fan of absolutes. People who espouse rigid beliefs – be they about climate change, religion, or politics (or a mix of all three) – instinctively make me question their evidence. As a reporter, I tend to see things in varying shades of gray, rather than black and white, and I gravitate towards stories that are full of nuance and complexity, where absolutes are rarely, if ever, to be found.

Freedman goes on to examine the biggest minefield in climate reporting and commentary today–the one populated with nebulous linkages between extreme weather disasters and global warming. It’s a tricky terrain that trips up a lot of people, he says:

Many journalists, politicians, and climate scientists have run into trouble by portraying the links between climate change and extreme weather in stark terms, rather than shades of gray.

I have a small quibble with the link he provides for “journalists,” because it’s to an infamous 2005 opinion piece by Ross Gelbspan, rather than an actual news story. There are always going to be advocacy journalists who would prefer to paint in black and white, which is fine, so long as a piece like that is labeled as “opinion.” For the purposes of his post, it would have been more helpful if Freedman had provided examples of stories by beat reporters that ran into this “trouble” or even of those that successfully communicated the complexity of the extreme weather/global warming linkages.

Fortunately, Curtis Brainard takes up the challenge in a CJR post. He found that many reporters covering two recent high-profile studies (here and here) in Nature did, in fact, include caveats that reflected the complexity of the research findings. He also offers some good advice on how to navigate this minefield:

as reporters plumb the depths of weather-climate connections, they should repeat this mantra: evidence, nuance, complexity, uncertainty; evidence, nuance, complexity, uncertainty.

11 Responses to “Navigating a Climate Minefield”

  1. Menth says:

    “I gravitate towards stories that are full of nuance and complexity”
    #1. How can there be any calls for “nuance” when the fate of A LIVABLE BIOSPHERE is at stake??!!!! Any calls for “nuance” are surely rooted in Koch funded denialism!
    #2 How can there be any calls for “nuance” when the fate of the global economy is at stake?!!?! Any calls for “nuance” are surely rooted in Soros funded quests for socialism!
    *Head explodes*

  2. Keith Kloor says:

    I realize you’re being sarcastic, but I don’t think Andrew was referring to these two stereotypical memes (that are advanced by the opposing sides in the climate debate).


  3. Menth says:

    On a more serious note here’s a sampling of coverage on the two mentioned papers from a quick skimming of google news:
    Agence France-Presse:
    Irish Times:
    Sydney Morning Herald:
    I feel these are pretty indicative of climate coverage in the msm as a whole (and I realize that is purely anecdotal). When AGW proponents complain about “false balance” I think they are perhaps forgetting that they themselves are members of an incredibly partisan issue and are susceptible to the same biases as anyone else. See here:
    A perfect illustration of this (and not to beat a dead horse) is how Joe Romm will blow up over a George Will column in the Washington Post and decry the media as “not getting it” and then a day later laud the “must-read” Michael Mann column in the Washington Post.

  4. Thanks for the pointer to the CJR piece; I found it helpful. A larger question is, if this weather is typical of what we can expect from a warming world, and weather is demonstrably something that readers respond to, haven’t we a moral obligation to highlight the connection even as we note that fractional attribution is difficult at best?

  5. Keith,
    The reason I referred to the opinion piece by Ross Gelbspan is that it’s a piece that has stuck with me for years as erroneously blaming one event on climate change, despite Gelbspan’s solid reporting on climate science and politics in other venues.
    I think your point is a good one though, it would’ve been more useful to point to a news story, particularly on the recent Nature papers, that more clearly show what I was trying to illustrate.

    Christopher: As a journalist, I think I have an obligation to readers to call attention to potential links between extreme weather and climate change, the difficulties of fractional attribution and all. The public is asking these questions, it falls to reporters and their scientist sources to help explain what is/isn’t known about their answers, rather than leaving a vacuum for advocates on both sides to spin the truth.

  6. kdk33 says:

    @ christopher


  7. Gaythia says:

    @ 6  I think that you should have given a longer answer.   Christopher and other scientifically interested people reading this need to be able to speak with friends in ways that combat all of the disinformation out there.  Part of the point of this blog is to work out the best communication techniques.   As Christopher points out, the CJR piece give a helpful explanation.  I think that the following Union of Concerned Scientist link gives basic information in a way that is useful for conveying concepts to non scientists:
    I think that it is important to make a very clear distinction between weather conditions, local or regional climate trends, and global climate.  Otherwise, when weather seems to be not typical of what we can expect form a warming world then people may become more skeptical.

  8. Keith Kloor says:

    Christopher (4):

    Your question strikes me as one better suited for an environmental ethicist, rather than a journalist.

    From my perspective, you’re asking whether it would be appropriate to “highlight the connection” in news stories even if it’s unclear.

    I echo Andrew’s answer to your question.


  9. Menth says:

    In my opinion journalists have the same “obligation” as scientists and that is to be as accurate as possible. This is simple in theory but naturally very difficult in practice due to the contending biases of a very high stakes issue (as per my silly comment #1).

    To play up a potential connection just because it’s scary and then essentially have a small footnote at the end mentioning uncertainty, to me is poor journalism to say the least and unfortunately prevalent throughout the media (not just climate science coverage, media in general tends to tilt toward ‘scare stories’).I believe journalists and scientists biggest ethical obligation is to be vigilant against their own biases, be a voice of reason in society and temper hysteria by putting things in context.

    In the words of chinese zen master Sent-ts’ an:

    If you want the truth to stand clear before you,
                never be for or against.

    The struggle between “for” and “against”
                is the mind’s worst disease.

  10. Thanks for your thoughts, everyone. I have noticed that climate change is mentioned more and more often in stories of extreme weather in U.S. media outlets. It now appears to be unavoidably part of the dialogue.

  11. Menth says:

    I realize this thread isn’t nearly as popular as anything hockey stick related but Roger Pielke Jr. has a relevant post on his blog for anyone still interested:

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