The Link Between Record-Breaking Global Heatwaves & Climate Change


Image via Climate Progress

Can you say that a particularly massive heatwave -- or any single weather event, for that matter -- is caused by climate change? Nope. Now, is there a link between a trend of record-breaking hot temperatures over the years and climate change? Indeed. There's a fine line between the two, and it's a fine line that makes it tough for the media to successfully discuss the correlation between, say, a miserable heatwave that's currently sweeping the East Coast and the greater phenomenon of human-caused global warming. That miserable heatwave is of course sweeping the entire globe, but that doesn't get as much attention stateside. Here's one outlet that does a good job of examining the link, the Christian Science Monitor (via Climate Progress):

Beijing hits a near-record 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia break 100 degrees and set new daily highs. Meanwhile, in Baghdad and Riyadh, on July 6 it was 113 and 111 degrees, warmer than average but still cooler than in Kuwait, which set the day's world temperature high at 122 degrees....

Yes, we're suffering a global heat wave. No, it's not the apocalypse. But it may be a further sign of climate change.

"You can't say any one heat wave is caused by global warming. But you can say that what global warming does is it makes events just like this more likely," says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change.

Indeed. In fact, go read the entire piece to see how a story can get the link between extreme weather events and climate change right on -- because it doesn't happen often.

Also solid, but not as strong is the AP's take:

... A certain segment of the public might look at the thermometer and blame global warming, but the two things aren't necessarily related, said Gavin Schmidt, at the Center for Climate Systems Research at Columbia University.

"One winter, one heat wave, one snowstorm is not significant. You need statistics over a decade," he said, noting that day-to-day weather and global temperature are two different things.

That said, he added, "the planet is getting warmer. 2000-2009 was the warmest since the 1850s. And the last 12 months seem to be the warmest."

My only gripe here is that the discussion of global warming seems to be framed almost as an afterthought: 'Oh yeah, there's this thing that's going on too'. But still, it gets the job done, and is factually correct. Which is still saying a lot.

The point is, there is a way to make a factual connection between heat waves (for example) and climate change in news coverage -- it just takes a willingness to avoid both oversimplifying the narrative (apocalyptic global warming caused a worldwide heatwave!) and ignoring the issue altogether (boy, it's hot out, huh?). It takes good, thorough reportage.

See a wider survey of media coverage of the heat wave at Climate Progress.

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