Why people are confused about climate change

Temperature departures from average from March 8-15. (NASA image, lazily pilfered from Climate Central)

Last spring, I wrote about how asking whether climate change “caused” a weather event is simply a bad question:

A better question might be, “how likely would this weather event have been if not for global warming?” Or, “as the atmosphere warms, will this sort of thing become more frequent?”

As we are confronted with yet another outbreak of off-the-charts bizarre weather, it doesn’t look like reporters are doing much better on this front. At least, not if this story from yesterday’s New York Times is any indication:

The rapid mating cycle started a few years ago, said Jeffry Mitton, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. He and other researchers blame climate change. Some meteorologists suspect the warm weather is an effect of recent solar flares. Still others say the early spring is part of the weather pattern known as La Niña. And then there is the explanation from the National Weather Service: a large subtropical high-pressure system is lingering above the western Atlantic, blocking cold air from blowing down.

Whatever the reason, the early weather is throwing all kinds of ritual spring activities off kilter.

Wow, can’t those scientists and meteorologists get their acts together?

The problem here is that the reporter is treating these explanations as mutually exclusive, when they’re not (except maybe the solar flare thing). Nothing about the immediate weather phenomena leading to the heat wave is inconsistent with a warming atmosphere.

It’s a bit like saying: “Some say it’s snowing because it’s winter. Others say it’s because there’s moisture falling from the sky. Whatever the reason, we’re going to have some shoveling to do tomorrow!”

It’s frustrating that while the Times has ample column inches to tell us about restaurant patrons who are confused about why they can’t get fresh asparagus in March, it can’t take the two or three sentences needed to make the relationship between weather and climate clear. Andrew Freedman of Climate Central shows how it’s done:

Although studies have not yet been conducted on the main factors that triggered this heat wave and whether global warming may have tilted the odds in favor of the event, scientific studies of previous heat events clearly show that global warming increases the odds of heat extremes, in much the same way as using steroids boosts the chances that a baseball player will hit more home runs in a given year.

See? Not that hard.

There’s a big difference between carefully reflecting the genuine uncertainties of climate science and obtusely sowing confusion about it.

5 thoughts on “Why people are confused about climate change

  1. Ah, so steroids is to home runs as global warming is to heat waves. I get it. So to get the public to better understand global warming, we just have to word it differently. Using terms regular folks can understand and relate to.


  2. NASA debunked the Global Warming alarmists by gathering real-world data that shows the UN modeling touted to support the Chicken Little cries that “the world is warming the world is warming!” are greatly exaggerated. Let’s see a story on that. Or how about doing a piece on how the University that brought the global warming debate to the forefront, the University of East Anglia, recently announced that Global Warming stopped in 1997? I’d like to see this paper, or any of the RE-AMP funded groups, reconcile the real science with inaccurate modeling. Truthiness rules here: where science is what you want it to be and says what you want it to say, while verifiable real-world data is “a lie funded by the Koch brothers.”

  3. “the University of East Anglia, recently announced that Global Warming stopped in 1997?”

    Completely, 100% false. Mary, I appreciate your willingness to engage on the site, but just once I’d like to see you post a comment that doesn’t rely on falsehoods to make a point. It’s tiresome.

  4. @klem: Metaphors and analogies are certainly helpful. But I think the larger issue is that reporters are mis-framing the question in the first place.

    If you ask, “did climate cause this weather event?”, the answer is always “we don’t know,” no matter what’s happening with the climate. It’s a pointless exercise. And when journalists simply muse on that question and leave it at that, it leads to broader confusion in the public.

  5. Mary, could you please provide sources for those claims?