Why Won't the Media Report the Link Between Global Warming and Extreme Storms?


A flooded neighborhood in Nashville, TN. Photo via Gulf News

A surprising number of regions in the US have been struck by extreme deluges this year: among them, Tennessee, Oklahoma, New England, Georgia. The events have been tragic, with lives lost and cities paralyzed. And if it weren't for a certain oily catastrophe, we'd probably be hearing a lot more about them. But we still likely wouldn't be hearing about the connection between such weather events and global warming.Much of the reason for that is the media is especially wary of overstepping any boundaries, of making apocalyptic-seeming pronouncements, at a time when much of the public is confused and cautious about climate change. And since, of course, no one storm is proof of global warming, there's no easy way to cover that angle of the story. So it most often gets left out altogether.

Joe Romm has a must-read interview with Dr. Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research over at Climate Progress, in which they tackle this exact topic, and explore what the link between such extreme weather events and global warming really is. I hope reporters are paying attention -- here's a particularly illuminating exchange:

Joe Romm: It seems to me the media hasn't figured out a way to talk about this so they often just don't talk about it at all.

Dr. Kevin Trenberth: That's correct.

JR: And as a result the public never learns the connection to climate change ...

KT: I find it systematically tends to get underplayed and it often gets underplayed by my fellow scientists. Because one of the opening statements, which I'm sure you've probably heard is "Well you can't attribute a single event to climate change." But there is a systematic influence on all of these weather events now-a-days because of the fact that there is this extra water vapor lurking around in the atmosphere than there used to be say 30 years ago. It's about a 4% extra amount, it invigorates the storms, it provides plenty of moisture for these storms and it's unfortunate that the public is not associating these with the fact that this is one manifestation of climate change. And the prospects are that these kinds of things will only get bigger and worse in the future. [Emphasis mine]

The entire discussion is extremely illuminating, on both the consequences of climate change, and on the media's difficulty in grappling with the story. Both seem to agree that the best way to conceive of climate change's role in such severe storms is as an "enhancement" or an invigorating factor: "where there's an enhancement, there's a global warming component. You can argue that it's not the dominant component, especially on an individual storm like Katrina." But it should be viewed as "the straw that breaks the camel's back."

Thanks to warmer oceans, and increased water vapor in the atmosphere, climate change is pushing storms from bad to worse -- and as both men agree, the trend is only slated to continue.

Read the full interview here.

More on Global Climate Change and Extreme Weather
Get Ready For More Flooding : Tropical Warming Statistically Linked
6 Extreme Weather Projections for the U.S.

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