Tornadoes, or Not Tornadoes? Or, How The Media Mis-Covers Climate

By Chris Mooney | June 6, 2011 9:48 am

Sometimes, it is important to critique one’s allies. A case in point is this piece, by Sharon Begley, which I understand was both at Newsweek and The Daily Beast.

On the latter site it starts off like this:

In a world of climate change, freak storms are the new normal. Newsweek’s Sharon Begley on why we’re unprepared for the harrowing future, and how adapting to the inevitable might be our only option.

Joplin, Missouri, was prepared. The tornado warning system gave residents 24 minutes’ notice that a twister was bearing down on them. Doctors and nurses at St. John’s Regional Medical Center, who had practiced tornado drills for years, moved fast, getting patients away from windows, closing blinds, and activating emergency generators. And yet more than 130 people died in Joplin, including four people at St. John’s, where the tornado sucked up the roof and left the building in ruins, like much of the shattered city.

Even those who deny the existence of global climate change are having trouble dismissing the evidence of the last year. In the U.S. alone, nearly 1,000 tornadoes have ripped across the heartland, killing more than 500 people and inflicting $9 billion in damage. The Midwest suffered the wettest April in 116 years, forcing the Mississippi to flood thousands of square miles, even as drought-plagued Texas suffered the driest month in a century. Worldwide, the litany of weather’s extremes has reached biblical proportions. The 2010 heat wave in Russia killed an estimated 15,000 people. Floods in Australia and Pakistan killed 2,000 and left large swaths of each country under water. A months-long drought in China has devastated millions of acres of farmland. And the temperature keeps rising: 2010 was the hottest year on earth since weather records began.

And yet further down in the story, we read this:

The rookies will struggle to comprehend the complex impacts of climate change. The burning of fossil fuels has raised atmospheric levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide by 40 percent above what they were before the Industrial Revolution. The added heat in the atmosphere retains more moisture, ratchets up the energy in the system, and incites more violent and extreme weather. Scientists disagree about whether climate change will bring more intense or frequent tornadoes, but there is wide consensus that the 2 degrees Fahrenheit of global warming of the last century is behind the rise in sea levels, more intense hurricanes, more heat waves, and more droughts and deluges.

I fail to see how you can justify leading with the recent devastating tornadoes, and citing them as part of the “evidence” for global climate change, when you later admit in the story that…we don’t know that!

Which is too bad, because it is otherwise a good piece and an important one about how we need to adapt to climate change. We do–but you can’t include tornadoes in that argument unless the “evidence” supports it.

For what we know on tornadoes and climate change, see here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Global Warming, Media and Science
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Comments (6)

  1. Giving Sharon Begley the benefit of the doubt, I have had editors add misleading promotional blurbs to a story. (And also, sometimes, change one word that transformed correct information into incorrect information.) Just a thought 🙂

  2. Chris Mooney

    Yes, as tornadoes are a news hook, I can see how editors could be to blame for this. You can never know who did what unless you are on the inside of the publication. The ultimate result is the same. Tornadoes are used and linked to climate change even as the article itself backs away from that very claim.

  3. GregM

    Here’s how I would justify it: The article was about the need to prepare for new weather extremes and she used Joplin as an example because it was recent and extreme and the town thought it was prepared for tornadoes. Its a good lead for focusing on the issue of preparedness or lack thereof.

    The sentence that left me wanting more was this: “Even those who deny the existence of global climate change are having trouble dismissing the evidence of the last year.” I wish she would have given some examples of deniers having trouble dismissing evidence.

  4. Chris Mooney

    Yeah, deniers never have trouble dismissing evidence!

    But I’m afraid your defense doesn’t fly with me.

  5. Jessie Desmond

    They were TRAINED! and things still went to Hell. Reality deficit disorder birthed deformed decisions creating economic cloudy days. If you live in Tornado Alley, your building and utility codes must be contingent. Has there ever been a spring when downstream flooding was not an Officially declared unpredictable disaster? Texas has drastically drawn down its water table pursuing agriculture in semi-desert. Bottom of the bucket, folks.

    Canada repaired Grand Banks codfish yield collapse by vigorously subsidizing larger more efficient fishing boats. The Grand Banks, the most productive fishery on planet Earth, was sterilized. Management obsesses on what is measurable instead of promoting what is important. Management exists to kill the future, for the only trusted employee is one whose sole marketable asset is loyalty.

    If levied penalty is less than profit in hand, it’s not a deterrent – it’s a business plan.

  6. Brian Too

    5. Jessie Desmond,

    Poetic but incomprehensible.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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