The Climate Debate's 'New Normal'

By Keith Kloor | November 16, 2012 12:26 pm

A year ago, I noted that “much reportage and analysis on climate change” was beginning to emphasize the connection between global warming and weather related catastrophes. This emphasis gave rise to a new meme, which Newsweek summarized in the sub-headline of a cover story:

In a world of climate change, freak storms are the new normal.

To understand just how widely this meme has since been embraced, google “new normal and climate change.”

But I’m jumping ahead. Before we get to how the “new normal” frame has shaped the dialogue on Hurricane Sandy, let’s recall what Bill McKibben, one of the most prominent climate activists and environmental writers, had to say about the hurricane that grazed New York last year:

Irene’s got a middle name, and it’s Global Warming.

McKibben was hardly alone in making this claim.

By 2012, the climate change/severe weather connection had become a main talking point. As University of Washington atmospheric scientist Cliff Mass observed in April:

It is happening frequently lately. A major weather event occurs—perhaps a hurricane, heat wave, tornado outbreak, drought or snowstorm– and a chorus of activist groups or media folks either imply or explicitly suggest that the event is the result of human-caused (anthropogenic) global warming.

Then came the summer of freak storms, catastrophic wildfires, record-breaking heat waves, and enduring drought. In July, the Guardian published an article titled:

“Is it now possible to blame extreme weather on global warming?

The reporter, Leo Hickman, asked a number of climate scientists if “specific extreme weather events are caused, or at least exacerbated, by global warming?”  Many journalists at this time were asking the same question as Hickman. One answer that seemed to resonate widely was provided by oft quoted NCAR climate scientist Kevin Trenberth, who said this to PBS on July 2:

look out the window and you see climate change in action.

The meaning was unmistakable. Trenberth said the same thing to CBS the next day. The “new normal” meme was being cemented. Here’s the headline from an AP story on July 3:

Climate Change: U.S. Heat Waves, Wildfires, and Flooding Are ‘What Global Warming Look Like.”

And here’s the subhead to Hickman’s July 3 Guardian piece:

Wildfires, heatwaves and storms witnessed in the US are ‘what global warming looks like’, say climate scientists

Fortuitously, a much publicized paper came out a week later, which the NYT characterized as thus in its headline:

Global warming makes heat waves more likely, study finds.

The cluster of severe weather events and disasters led Elizabeth Kolbert to write in a July 23 New Yorker commentary:

The summer of 2012 offers Americans the best chance yet to get their minds around the [climate] problem.

In other words, a “teachable moment” was at hand, or, as was turning out to be the case, “teachable moments.”

The teaching extended into early August, when NASA climate scientist James Hansen published his widely-publicized Washington Post op-ed and study. Although there were dissenters, Hansen’s pronouncement (that some recent heat waves and drought episodes were caused by global warming) sounded to many like the closing argument in a case that had already amassed solid, damning evidence.

So when Hurricane Sandy arrived earlier this month, it didn’t take long for climate change to be fingered as a culprit, including in this much-discussed story called, “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.”

Several journalists challenged the simplistic, cause-and-effect proclamations. On Twitter and in his NYT Dot Earth blog, Andy Revkin sought to remain grounded in science, which led some green pundits to chastise him as “scold” who was trying to “tamp down” discussion of the link between global warming and Hurricane Sandy. The best rebuttal to this charge came from CJR‘s Curtis Brainard, who wrote that folks like Revkin were “trying to steer” the discussion “toward facts, and away from exaggerations.”

Powerful memes, however, can be impervious to facts. Consider how discussion on Hurricane Sandy has played out. For instance, a Reuters story from last week starts:

Extreme weather sparked by climate change is “the new normal” and Superstorm Sandy that ravaged the U.S. Northeast is a lesson the world must pursue more environmentally friendly policies, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Friday.

Another example: New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo recently wrote in an op-ed:

Extreme weather is the new normal.

Green advocacy pundits worried about science-based journalists “tamping down” discussion on the climate change/severe weather connection need not worry. We should expect every major storm to now be discussed in the context of global warming. That is the new rhetorical normal, correct or not. I just laid out how we got to this point. There’s probably no going back.

This is the new normal in the climate debate, and pleas for a more nuanced conversation don’t stand a chance.

  • H.M.

    I thought I had understood from the recent IPCC report on extreme events that no particular event (or its absence) can be unequivocally attributed to climate change or global warming. I had also understood, from careful historical studies (duly normalized) that Sandy and its recent peers are by no means unprecedented or even anomalous. It is notable that while attributing specific (and not unprecedented) extreme events to global warming, the same people may argue that a flat global-temperature trend during about 16 years is not indicative of a pause in global warming, nor requires adjusting existing projections, because longer periods are needed (it was initially said that at least one decade without warming would be required to necessitate an adjustment in climate models and projections, but  more recently the minimum has been set at 17 years, which by the way would be reached by 2013). Would the minimum required period of no warming be extended to perhaps 20 years in case no extraordinary warming happens to happen in 2013? Quite disconcerting.

  • BillC

    Nice post. What, no comments yet? Everyone should read the article at your last link if they haven’t. It’s quite good, though it ends with this statement: ”There is a mountain of evidence manmade climate change is real and poses risks
    to society and the environment, especially if its pace accelerates. Stronger
    hurricanes are just one of many possible unwelcome consequences. There’s really
    no need to oversell connections between storms like Sandy and global warming to
    build a case for responding to these risks.
    ” Oh, but there is…the need is the urgency. Without the “here and now” connection the concern does not rise to the level of crisis, which is necessary for action regardless of cost-benefit considerations.

  • Joshua

    This is the new normal in the climate debate, and pleas for a more nuanced conversation don’t stand a chance.

    I don’t know, Keith. I saw a few articles that were fairly “nuanced” in their discussion of the linkage between Sandy and climate-change. They outlined both sides of the debate, and perhaps some  leaned on the “linkage” side in balance, but with caveats and personally I think that is appropriate as such reporting does reflect the views of many climate scientists. Of course I also read of advocates that indicated the the “linkage” as a given just as I read of advocates that indicated that was incredulous of any possibility of “linkage.” And of course, sensationalism sells.

    I think that advocates play an important roles in these debates. Advocacy is much criticized but much good in this world has come from advocacy (and that would have not occurred absent the work of advocates) Of course, advocacy can go to far and have a negative influence. I appreciate your focus on trying to identify when  and where that happens. But: (1) I think that you efforts would be strengthened with more balance in your discussion about the full range of advocacy and, (2) conflating the presence of advocates with a total (or near total) lack of  “nuanced conversation” can also have a negative impact:  You know, fear-mongering about fear-mongering, and all that. Perhaps nuanced conversation will be hampered, in part, because people sometimes focus disproportionately on specific elements of the debate in such a way as to overlook other elements.

  • Ed Forbes

    Cool…weather is now climate…..remember that when the snow hits in force this winter

  • Joshua

    Bill -

    Oh, but there is”¦the need is the urgency. Without the “here and now”
    connection the concern does not rise to the level of crisis, which is necessary for action regardless of cost-benefit considerations.

    You know that I always respect your opinions and take them seriously, but I think that you are being a bit too general there. For example, if Cuomo or Bloomberg state a need to focus on “here and now concerns, I don’t think it reflects a view that action is necessary regardless of cost-benefit considerations.

    So we might argue about whether their concerns result from ignorance, or we might argue about whether their concerns result from them being suckered by junk science and advocates (or a “hoax”), but do you really think that they are expressing concerns without any regard for costs versus benefits? Certainly, not everyone concerned fits your description?

  • Chris S

    Unfortunately, green advocacy pundits have surreptitiously infiltrated much of the media to further “the cause”.Don’t expect to read about it in much of the media though.

  • Tom Scharf

    Yes, science through the “power of suggestion”.  If only the facts supported it.   I totally agree there has been success with this latest meme in the media.

    I actually laugh at this stuff.  Go look at the historical trends.  Do it, I dare you.  

    Why is it funny?  Well because this is yet another climate meme that has about a 100% chance of backfiring.  It’s not so much that proving fractional causation of extreme events by global warming is a really hard business, but it is the fact that there aren’t even valid trends to even make a correlation with global warming in most cases. Duh.  Double duh.

    Most scientists are not going to back this up, they aren’t going to stake their reputation on bad science that is so easily refuted.(Hansen will but he is a special case).   Look at the latest IPCC SREX report.  If the IPCC isn’t even on board, good luck with your meme.

    Really, this is an own goal, to borrow a phrase from the UK.  Skeptics are just loving every second of this one.

    Hansen says 3 sigma heat events are now 10x more likely?  Well I will bet anyone $1000 that we don’t see 10x the number of 3 sigma events in the next decade.  

  • Joshua

    Cool”¦weather is now climate”¦..remember that when the snow hits in force this winter

    How often have we seen such confident predictions and analysis of cause-and-effect w/r/t opinions about climate change? How many times have final nails and final stakes been driven into the coffin/through the heart of AGW theory by cold winter weather. At what point does one run out of final nails and final stakes?

    The debate and public opinion are more “nuanced” than that. Short of an absolutely unambiguous string of extreme weather events (something climate scientists say is unlikely), why wouldn’t we expect to see a bi-lateral affect of weather on public opinion about climate change? How many predictions of final nails/final stakes to “skeptics” have to see falsified before they stop making those predictions. Wouldn’t one expect a skeptic to use the data available to examine cause-and-effect relationships? Wouldn’t doing otherwise merely be “skepticism?”

  • Ed Forbes

    JoshuaA responce with more of the long rambling posts that have little/no relation to the point being made. keep up the good work.  

  • Joshua

    If you’d like, I’ll be shorter and more concise, Ed. The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that when “the snow hits in force this winter,” it will have no discernible effect on the climate debate in the middle or long term, let alone in the short term. But don’t let that stop you from your unfounded beliefs.

  • Nullius in Verba

    #6,

    Who said anything about “final nails”? Sometimes I wonder if there are invisible messages in here that only you can see.

    The point being made is about consistency, or it’s lack. If you interpret short-term weather events as evidence of climate change in the interests of alarmism, the same connection allows sceptics to use cold weather events to debunk it. Switching then to “nuanced debate” not only debunks the sceptics but also the previous alarmism, and the constant convenient flip-flopping between ‘alarm’ and ‘nuance’ wears away all credibility.

    The lesson has been painfully learned by some, which is why Keith and a few others take care to object to the unjustified connections of weather to climate, even when they would be temporarily convenient. But it’s a point that has to be continually hammered, or back-sliding occurs – to the sceptics glee. Weather-is-climate stories are easily countered, and enable the climate campaign to be portrayed as unscientific propaganda. A more nuanced conversation exists, but only as a result of sceptics using (with heavy irony) the same methods and thus pointing out the inconsistency, thus forcing climate scientists to in effect argue on both sides of the argument.

    Both ‘nuanced’ and ‘unnuanced’ conversations exist in parallel, and the existence of the former does not mean we should ignore the latter.

  • Joshua

    NiV -

    The point being made is about consistency, or it’s lack. If you
    interpret short-term weather events as evidence of climate change in the
    interests of alarmism, the same connection allows sceptics to use cold
    weather events to debunk it.

    “Skeptics” and and will use any number of rhetorical devises to attack AGW theory. Despite the claim having been made quite often throughout the “skeptical” blogosphere for years, there is no evidence that periods of cold weather have significantly affected public opinion on climate change in the medium or long term (perhaps the short term is arguable but also correspondingly less significant). The supposition is intuitive and logical – but simply not supported by the facts. So the question remains (at least to me if not to you): if the facts do not support the theory, then why has it been promoted so often by so many “skeptics” for so long?  My conclusion is that it is because those “skeptics” who promote the theory are not skeptics.

  • Joshua

    Also – the short-term impact of “weather as climate” arguments (which are made on both sides of the fence), by definition will balance itself out – therefore having no real impact. This, also, has been proven by the facts on the ground. The theory that will have some affect that will be out of balance on the one side rather than the other is not only unsupported by the facts, but now that I think about it, also illogical. It is interesting to me that “skeptics” think that promoting a connection, say, between forest fires and climate change will earn them a rhetorical victory without also recognizing that all the “Oh my god it snowed a lot yesterday” stories would have a counter-balancing effect.

  • Joshua

    I should make this point more explicit.

    “Skeptics” can and will use any number of rhetorical devises to attack AGW theory... largely irrespective of what advocates on the other side say or do.

    The notion that there is some direct relationship between what climate scientists (or “realists) say or do, and the impact of the arguments of “skeptics” on public opinion is specious, IMO.

    Here’s an example. There is evidence that there are many Americans who are largely ignorant of what climate scientists actually do or don’t say. And in fact, we can see evidence that a large % of  “skeptics” are particularly ignorant of what climate scientists do or don’t say:

    Look at the results of this poll:

    (add prefix)tamino.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/q30.jpg

    If you don’t know what climate scientists do or don’t say, then why would what climate scientists say affect your opinion about climate change?

    Further, we can see evidence that many “skeptics” don’t even think it’s necessary to evaluate what climate scientists do or don’t say:

    (add prefix)tamino.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/q74.jpgNow I’d say that of course, these polling data are not conclusive. But they do suggest at least that “skeptics” are over-confident in their often hear theories about the negative impact (to the case of AGW-promoting scientists) of associating extreme weather events to climate change

  • Nullius in Verba

    #10,

    “The supposition is intuitive and logical ““ but simply not supported by the facts. So the question remains (at least to me if not to you): if the facts do not support the theory, then why has it been promoted so often by so many “skeptics” for so long?”

    Because, despite whatever you may think, it works.

    Sceptics judge such tactics by their effectiveness in one-to-one debate. I’ve been winning arguments with the weather-is/is-not-climate point for years. It’s perfectly effective.

    I would agree that it probably won’t have a measurable impact on national opinion, but not because it isn’t an effective argument. It’s partly because the general public has limited exposure to sceptic arguments, partly because any single event isn’t going to shift entrenched views much, it’s a slow process, but mostly because it has already had its effect. Most people will recite the warmist catechism when asked by a pollster, or for ‘official’ purposes with their ‘public face’ on, because that’s what you do to fit in, but nobody takes it seriously, or without a wry cynicism any more. It’s a joke now, and once something has become a joke, the case is lost. Polls won’t show it, but the universal depression and frustration expressed by activists at the total lack of public enthusiasm tells its own message.

    But feel free to believe otherwise. All these marvellous quotes like “look out the window and you see climate change in action” will be recycled – to great amusement – when there’s snow on the ground, and you can tell yourself that they’ll have no effect if you like. If such statements really have no effect, why did Kevin Trenberth say it?

  • Nullius in Verba

    #12,

    “If you don’t know what climate scientists do or don’t say, then why would what climate scientists say affect your opinion about climate change?”

    Because the media quote them.

    “Now I’d say that of course, these polling data are not conclusive.”

    Definitely, when the question is ambiguous.

    Take that q30 for example. What do you mean by ‘global warming’? Do you mean ‘catastrophic global warming’? Do you mean ‘anthropogenic global warming’? Or do you mean ‘possibly natural global warming; a mere rise in average temperature’?

    Do you mean global warming over the past century, or the past 10 years? Or the last 1,000? Do you mean significant global warming, and do you mean it in the impact sense or the statistical sense? If in the statistical sense, what statistical model are you assuming? And is that statistical model also universally agreed?

    You see, it’s a remarkably ‘unnuanced’ question, that frankly doesn’t tell you anything interesting other than that the pollster has no understanding of the debate.

    Which is possibly the problem, yes? If you don’t know what sceptics do or don’t say, then why would what they say affect your opinion of climate change?

  • Jeffn

    #13: ” It’s a joke now, and once something has become a joke, the case is lost.”

    There are three jokes:
    1. Weather is climate when alarmists want it to be, and just weather any other time.
    2. What “climate change” does to the weather depends on what the weather is doing. Snow? Climate change. No snow? Climate change. Wet, dry, cold, hot, stormy, calm.
    3. “Everybody knows that climate is the weather over long timescales, therefore yesterday’s storm is proof of AGW but the past 16 years of temperature trends is uninteresting. Just as uninteresting as the long timescale look at storms.

    Remember, if you convince someone an issue is important, they’ll pay attention to it. They’ll look into it. Some people think its important that they not discover it’s a joke.

  • Jack Savage

    In the future, we may look back at these past few months as the time when the people who consider  “climate change” to be an immediate threat ( it is real and it is here!) finally split from the science.They may obtain some superficial advantage for the present, but this will doom the movement very shortly and they will find that the public will start to regard them as tin-foil hat obsessives.

  • http://www.sustainhv.organdothers Melissa Everett

    Everybody in this discussion is trying to achieve a balance of connecting the right dots without connecting wrong dots, and considering that the worst-case plausible scenario is very bad indeed.  George Lakoff has a helpful framing – Sandy was “systemically caused” by global warming – not a direct irrefutable cause but a sharp amping up of probability in a situation where probabilities are what we have to go with.

    “Yes, Global Warming Systemically Caused Hurricane Sandy” by George Lakoff
    <http://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/10/30-8>It is (seriously) unfortunately to see smart people fall into argument about degrees of certainty – in an intrinsically interpretive domain of this issue where we are necessarily making best possible judgments without having superhuman powers – rather than focusing the discussion on reducing risk in the face of climate change happening before our eyes (e.g. the last 27 years have not seen a “colder than average” winter by the last generation’s standards of average). 

  • harrywr2

    #15 Jeffn,

    There are three jokes:

    You forgot ‘It’s worse then we thought’….so 4 jokes.

  • Jarmo

    It’s like the Middle Ages again. Any natural disaster is blamed on our evil deeds and salvation from the wrath of Gaia is only on offer to those who heed the words of the high priests.

  • OPatrick

    Joshua #2 – I think you misunderstand Keith’s final line. I read it as an ironic self-reference.

  • Jack Hughes

    “It’s worse than we thought” is actually the First Law of Climatology.

  • TBill

    The question is – What action needs to be taken by society?  I tend to feel those who connect severe weather to global warming are those who feel that the goverment needs to be immediate actions to reduce CO2 emissions.   Instead my feeling is we probably need to move more toward better storm preparedness.         

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller
  • BillC

    Joshua #4,Sorry, I was away. I read Cuomo’s op-ed. First, I agree not everyone is speaking to the same themes. However the sentence Keith quoted, and one or two others in his op-ed, are above and beyond what I think is necessary to just start openly preparing for adaptation, talking about it, whatever. Oh well, he’s a politician, and a decent one I think. Is Keith cherry-picking here? Sure…but the cherries are ripe and almost on the ground….this is an instance of where I can snark on a blog about something someone said but don’t have any real solutions, e.g. pretending politicians won’t grandstand is silly. As opposed to sometimes there are people I really think should know better (like the “systemic causation” guy).

  • jeffn

    Harry, good catch on the 4th joke. Jack Hughes and Harry- I think the group Joshua likes to call “the realists” are underestimating some of the bigger recent stories. Specifically:
    The US has Saudi levels of oil- everybody remember that the greenies have been doom-mongering for 40 years that we are catastrophically out of oil. This is an epic fail at the very moment they are saying Sandy is proof of the latest doom campaign.
    Obama announced that jobs and the economy trumps climate change. Pilke Jr’s “iron law” is now confirmed by a liberal president and set in stone for the next four years. The iron law has held for 12 years of Republican administrations- Bush/Cheney, Bush/Quayle, and 12 years of Democrats- Clinton/Gore, Obama/Biden. Good track record. This means they won’t leave money and jobs in the ground.
    Rio 20 underscored, underlined and red-lettered the fact that “realists” have no plan, only a collection of partisan wishes that have little to do with emissions. Whatever they do want (and they disagree on this) rests entirely on the laughable premise that a truly representative “stakeholder” gathering would turn away from wealth. There is a reason that people without money flee places like Cuba. Even the indigenous ones.

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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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