It’s the Weather, Stupid *

By Keith Kloor | May 10, 2013 2:48 pm

Last year, in an interview with New York Times reporter Justin Gillis, CJR’s Curtis Brainard asked:

There’s been a lot of debate about the extent to which media coverage does or does not influence public opinion about climate change and society’s willingness to address the problem. Do journalists matter in this regard?

Gillis answered exactly as I (and any journalist) would have:

Well, if I didn’t think it mattered, I wouldn’t be doing it, but how that social dialectic works over the long run, I don’t really know.

What we do know is that the weather, above all, moves the needle on public opinion. So if there’s an unusual heatwave or spate of freakish weather disasters, more people are inclined to believe that climate change is for real, as was the case last summer.

But this cuts both ways. In a new survey, the Yale Project on Climate Change & Communication reports that,

since Fall 2012, the percentage of Americans who believe global warming is happening has dropped 7 points to 63%, likely influenced by the relatively cold winter of 2012-13 in the United States and an unusually cold March just before the survey was conducted.

At Slate, Will Oremus finds this latest pendulum swing to be “very frustrating” and suggests that “we should stop worrying so much about the minority of Americans who don’t believe global warming is happening.” This is good advice. I’ve never understood the angst that many seem to experience over these fluctuating public opinion numbers.

As Andy Revkin has remarked,

there’s abundant evidence that much of public attitude on climate is, as I’ve been saying, the equivalent of water sloshing in a shallow pan — lots of fluctuations, little depth or commitment (particularly when money is involved).

It remains to be seen what will galvanize the public to rise up and demand action on global warming. Meanwhile, if you want to know what the average person is thinking about climate change at any given moment in time, just ask the weatherman to tell you which way the wind is blowing. 

*The headline plays off this famous phrase from James Carville during the 1992 Presidential election.

[A cover story that appeared after Hurricane Sandy.]
  • Buddy199

    CNN/ORC Poll. Jan. 14-15, 2013.

    “Which of the following is the most important issue facing the country today?”

    The economy 46%

    The federal budget deficit 23%

    Health care 14%

    Gun policy 6%

    Foreign policy 4%

    Immigration 3%

    The environment 2%

    Other 1%

    That explains the swings in public opinion. People only care about the environment twice as much as “other”, meaning they really don’t care that intensely to have a well-defined, unchanging opinion.

  • jh

    Well, I believe climate change is occurring and I believe human emissions of CO2 are partly to mostly responsible. Nonetheless, I regularly remind my elected officials that I am absolutely against any environmental regulations that target climate change.

    From the policy perspective, the question isn’t whether you think climate change is real or not. The question is “how bad will climate change impacts be”? Of course, the Climate Concerned Community doesn’t – ever – mention that one can accept climate change without accepting the worst-case scenario, nor does it – ever – concede that it’s still possible that the best case scenario might actually occur.

    This is why the CCC focuses exclusively on belief or denial. If it recognizes that degrees (sorry) of climate change are possible, then must also recognize that the most extreme policy response – its own and only policy prescription – might not be the only possible response and may not even be the best response. Since it doesn’t want any other policy response, it’s forced to keep deluding itself about how the public views climate change.

    • Keith Kloor

      You make valid points about the focus of the climate concerned community. I’ve long thought it would be good to talk about this issue in terms of risk.

      • Buddy199

        Great idea.

        Take each part of the issue, realistically assess risk and time frame, address on a small scale, see how that works, adjust the response accordingly – ramp it up, stop doing it and try something else, or modify it based on the results.

        Instead of running around with hair on fire, passing 2,700 page bills that no has read or can comprehend the effects of, and deluding yourself that throwing hundreds of billions of dollars and random action at a problem you don’t have a grasp of equals progress.

      • Martin

        Yes yes yes yes yes etc.

        To be fair this is *really* hard as there are lots of trade offs: definite costs & benefits of some action against uncertain costs & benefits of less action.

        It could be quite an interesting conversation to have, but I fear only the reasonably well informed will be able to have it, and the reasonably well informed are already far more entrenched in their views than the shallow sloshy public in the pan.

  • Tom Scharf

    Still waiting for you to detail the “science” behind the extreme weather / climate change link. Journalistic integrity at its finest when the greens report on this subject.

    Is it so hard for you to see you do the same thing with this linkage as you get so bent out of shape for with GMO linkage to X, Y, Z? It’s the same thing here. It’s used because it is perceived to be effective, not because it is true.

    You are very careful in your writing to not jump on this bandwagon explicitly, you likely sense this will come back to haunt you, but give implicit approval with a wink and a nod otherwise. It’s a running theme.

    • Keith Kloor

      I’m still waiting for you to point out where I’m promoting the extreme weather/climate change link.

      • Tom Scharf

        Uhhhh..check your graphics.

        As I said your are careful to not promote, but you are equally careful to not call BS on it. You don’t take any position. Do you find that an acceptable stance in the GMO / India farmer suicide propaganda?

        Is this a science blog, or a media observation blog? The science in extreme weather linkage doesn’t pass the smell test.

    • http://www.facebook.com/tom.yulsman Tom Yulsman

      The statistics are pretty clear: While a climate change signal cannot be conclusively discerned from the record of DAMAGES from extreme weather events (because other factors such as development trends swamp that signal), statistics show that extreme weather events have been occurring more frequently. These trends are a predicted consequence of global warming, and they are consistent with scientists’ understanding of how the physics of the climate system works. Moreover, climate models simulate observed trends in extremes, such as fewer frost days and more frequent and intense heat waves, on both a seasonal and regional basis. And increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is absolutely key to those model outcomes.

      Keith was right in one of his earlier comments: This is a matter of risk. Extreme events are products of the natural workings of the climate system. So it is just as incorrect to say that climate change “caused” this or that event as is it to say that the steak I ate last night will cause me to have a heart attack. But both climate change and saturated fat load the dice, so to speak, making extreme events and heart attacks more likely.

      This is controversial among some people only because of the scrim through which they view the science. In short, this conversation really has much less to do with science than with values and politics. I will include myself in that statement. I freely admit that I am human — that I am not an objective robot. But as a science journalist, I work hard to take an empirical, objective approach to the science, in an effort, however flawed, to overcome my biases.

      How about you Tom Scharf? What are your biases, and how to do work to overcome them?

      • jh

        Actually, Tom, there has been no detectable increase in several types of extreme events, including tropical storms, floods and tornadoes. It’s not a matter of detecting the events through damage signals, as you claim. As a journalist, you must be familiar with the SREX, which is only a year and a half old.

        Furthermore, some other types of extreme events that are attributed to climate change, such as drought, is complicated by the difficulty in measuring exactly what constitutes a drought. Unlike floods, TSs and tornadoes, you can’t simple count the “drought” events. So I’d say that, when it comes to events that don’t need complicated definitions, the extreme event attribution isn’t working very well. The only kind of “extreme events” that can be reliably counted and attributed to climate change are temperature maxima and minima.

        I’m convinced by your claims about the statistics. Yes, you’ve made the same claim that several members of the Scientific Climate Concerned Community (Trenberth) make, but it’s not a universally accepted claim among those in the larger scientific community.

      • kdk33

        Perhaps you could show us the data on increasing extreme events? Just to be scientific and all.

      • Tom Scharf

        Of course this is about science, the trending of most categories of extreme events is clear, there is no correlation. This isn’t about crossing the barrier from 94% to 95% to make the trend statistically significant as you wrongly infer, it isn’t even close in most cases. The correlation is effectively non-existent, or even trending the wrong way. And correlation is the easy part of the science, proving causation to CO2 is much more difficult.

        So when the “pro-science” group trots out the extreme events are clearly increasing NOW meme, and the “anti-science” group objects on clear factual grounds, the anti-science group is dismissed as cranks and deniers (or called stupid…). So that tends to bias us anti-science types, poison the well, if I may.

        I would say 99% of extreme event articles in the MSM fail to show any empirical data at all to back up the assertion. And I can personally read and understand data trends. The science of extreme linkage now is very weak, but the media meme is strong. Science journalists could have a field day exposing this, but most choose not to. I see this as a clear case of bias in environmental reporting.

        I can accept that the models show that these events should increase. That’s great. Testable hypothesis are a foundation of proving a theory. I’m watching the trends, the theory could be proven right, but it sure hasn’t so far.

        • BBD

          Hansen, Sato & Ruedi (2012)

          “Climate dice,” describing the chance of unusually warm or cool seasons, have become more and more “loaded” in the past 30 y, coincident with rapid global warming. The distribution of seasonal mean temperature anomalies has shifted toward higher temperatures and the range of anomalies has increased. An important change is the emergence of a category of summertime extremely hot outliers, more than three standard deviations (3σ) warmer than the climatology of the 1951–1980 base period. This hot extreme, which covered much less than 1% of Earth’s surface during the base period, now typically covers about 10% of the land area. It follows that we can state, with a high degree of confidence, that extreme anomalies such as those in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and Moscow in 2010 were a consequence of global warming because their likelihood in the absence of global warming was exceedingly small. We discuss practical implications of this substantial, growing, climate change.

          Figure: JJA anomalies relative to 1951 – 1980 baseline.

          • BBD
          • Tom Scharf

            Do I really need to point you to Hansen’s math errors here? I assume you know about them. He has never addressed the main criticisms.

            http://tamino.wordpress.com/2012/07/21/increased-variability/

            This was cherry picking and bad math. He didn’t use data prior to 1950 (dust bowl anybody?), he selected only geographical areas that supported his agenda, and his handling of distributions while there was a known increasing trend was simply WRONG.

            The distributions haven’t really changed, but the median has moved. He invented new statistical methods, and as happens many times with this, he was only fooling himself.

            Hansen is a known activist, so he is already suspect to begin with. In this case his science was also shown to be wanting.

          • BBD

            Do I really need to point you to Hansen’s math errors here? I assume you know about them. He has never addressed the main criticisms.

          • BBD
        • kdk33

          Funnily, we went through this about 2 years ago at the old CAS site. MIchael Tobis was the protagonist. Even he had to agree that there was no discernible correlation to extreme weather events.

          So, he concocted the notion that extreme events were too rare to describe with statistics?!. In so doing, he became the father of the theory that CO2 was causing weather to change in ways that were simultaneously dangerous and non-detectable.

          I suspect he’s a better climate scientist that most.

          Cheers!

  • kdk33

    “Demand action on climate change”. No. You mean, “condemn 10’s of millions in the developing world to death” and “trap 100’s of millions in lives of hopeless poverty”.

    I am forever amazed at the gnashing of liberal teeth about Bush the war criminal and evil republicans who don’t care about the poor…

    Yet liberals push for a global policy whose only certain outcome will be to damage more lives than any war ever.

    Never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence. Or should we?

    • Jake

      As opposed to condemning 100’s of millions around the world to be climate refugees? What is most irritating is that even climate research is met with a wall of resistance – as if merely looking for a way to decentralize the production of power and to find an alternative source of fuel is damaging to the economy.

      We could quadruple our spending on photo-voltaics, turbine wear modes, and efficient electrical storage systems and the added spending would still be an insignificant drop in the bucket of total government spending. Giant corporations are walking a fine line right now – advocating for science education that gets them the engineers they need, while also limiting funding for public research and organizing enormous PR campaigns to promote fossil fuels and limit the proliferation of AGW science.

      It’s not the weather, stupid – it’s the multi-billion dollar fossil fuels business, stupid!

      • kdk33

        Climate refugees. That’s funny.

  • DMAllen

    Both sides would rather call the other side stupid than discuss the hypotheses, the data, the risk. The whole conversation has become infantile. Science, environmentalism, and third world health are all victims of the ongoing, infantile polemic. So long as cheer-leading journalists lead the diatribes on both sides, we are stuck in stupid.

  • jh

    Yes, a risk conversation would be a good thing. But talk about the weather! It seems to be affecting climate scientists in the CCC as well as the general public.

    A short year ago the IPCC authors were warning that the climate prognosis was worse than ever. While the central estimate of climate sensitivity remained at 3°C, all the data, they claimed, indicated that it would likely go higher – even much higher.

    The weather seems to have changed that. In David Appell’s piece on climate change at the Yale Climate Media forum there are some interesting comments from the scientific CCC. Suddenly people like Ray Pierrehumbert, after noting that:

    “The term ‘hiatus’ is premature”, and
    “There’s really nothing in this that changes our estimates of climate sensitivity,”

    adds that

    “…if climate sensitivity is 2°C…” and
    “…no serious scientist thinks climate sensitivity could be much lower than 2 degrees…”

    What? Come again? What happened to 3°C and heading upward? Such a statement from the Scientific CCC was unthinkable just a year
    ago.

    And Appell, one of the CCC’s science-media cross-breeds, adds that “There have been hiatus periods in the past — from about 1945 to 1975…” Whoa – just a few years ago this wasn’t a natural slowdown, right? It was slowdown induced by the production of CFCs. The expectation was that, with CFCs no longer holding it back, the earth’s blanket of human-deposited CO2 would be free to drive global temperatures to incredible heights at unprecedented warming rates. What happened to that?

    Dissembling caveats aside, the “hiatus” was indeed unexpected and it has irrevocably altered the risk calculus. A period of dramatic warming similar to 1975-1997 only brings us back to the AR4 mean estimate. The irrelevant pause has destroyed the foundation in which the worst-cases were based: the presumption that previous pauses were
    human-induced.

    Unfortunately this change in the risk calculus hasn’t yet been factored into the CCC’s thinking on policy. To properly realign policy prescriptions, we need to factor in a) the direct, CFC-theory-blowing effect and b) the indirect there-is-no-risk-that-the-science-is-mistaken effect. Until these two factors are back in play in the policy discussion, not much productive can happen.

  • Michael Lowe

    Keith,

    I agree with Tom. You approach the rhetorical ploys of climate change activism in an entirely different way to the way that you approach the same ploys when they are used in depates like the GMO debate.

    Isn’t it time to have another look at the climate change thing?

  • eman Hachem

    just come to see every new on cinema
    http://online.mazikaclub.com/

  • syed

    Global warming has been most debated topic for almost a decade , swayed by political and financial gains this topic has never really got the attention it deserves and hence we are victim of this very own problem not just in north america but across the globe, what sad about this is that very limited people care about global warming but for majority its just a science topic,

    http://www.techbate.com

  • http://profiles.google.com/davidskurnick1 David Skurnick

    It’s an enormous leap from believing the GW has been happening to taking action. In order to justify taking action, one must also know or believe that
    1. It’s very likely the GW will continue for a long time
    2. It’s very likely that GW will be catastrophic or extremely damaging
    3. Actions to prevent GW are available
    4. These actions are reasonably affordable
    5. These actions have a high probability of being effective
    6. Actions to try to prevent GW are preferable to actions to deal with the consequences of GW.

  • dljvjbsl

    It would be beneficial to the AGW cause if climate scientists could just once admit that they do not have all the answers. They could say that there is ample cause for great concern but that the science is incomplete and so unexpected things may happen. Instead they project that attitude that they and only they have all the answers. This is not conducive to the creation of trust that the public needs in order to support significant action.

  • WSBK

    That Business Week cover is one of the reasons I let my subscription lapse.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

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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