Stop the presses

A snapshot of weather-event attribution in the news

As extreme weather events wracked the globe in 2011, U.S. media coverage of climate change was comparatively meek. According to The Daily Climate, a website that produces and tracks articles about climate change, the number of articles, blog posts, editorials, and op-eds declined by about 20% in 2011 from 2010's levels and nearly 42% from 2009's peak, prompting the site to declare that 2010 was the year that climate coverage "fell off the map."

There are just not as many
reporters filing on climate

Other media analyses support The Daily Climate’s findings, according to the Columbia Journalism Review. The University of Colorado’s Maxwell Boykoff, who has tracked climate coverage in five major U.S. newspapers since 2000, charted a downward trend in 2011. And Drexel University’s Robert Brulle, who has tracked climate coverage at network news stations since the 1980s, has also noted a decline in coverage since 2007.

"It's easy to see the decline. There are just not as many reporters filing on climate as there used to be," says veteran science writer Charles Petit, who oversees the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, a service for science journalists funded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Petit points out that the nation's overall number of reporters has shrunk markedly over the past few years, and many newspapers no longer have their own reporters covering science at all, much less climate change. However, because such papers can pull climate change stories from wire services or new online media outlets, a survey that tallies the overall number of stories may not capture whether people who read newspapers are in fact less likely to see them.

If Greenland's ice cap falls off,
reporters will be all over it

Petit suggests another reason for why journalists and wire services are not covering climate change: because there is not much new to say. "When the same old things keep happening, they cease to be news," he says. "A report of increased heat waves, storms, higher average temperatures, or shrinking ice caps better have some aspect that is dramatically different from the last such report, or it is unlikely to shoulder its way on to the news budget. If Greenland's ice cap falls off, or just starts to slide in a funny way, or it stops raining for a year straight in Florida, reporters will be all over it."

Quotes from a wild year

Keeping tabs on science journalism

Launched in 2006, the KSJ Tracker is a service for science journalists, created and funded by the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It posts Monday–Friday, providing a broad sampling of the past day’s U.S. science news, as well as news releases and other news tips related to science in the general circulation news media. It also gives science journalists the opportunity to suggest stories and comment constructively on each other's work.

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Charles Petit, a longtime science reporter, is the principal tracker at the KSJ Tracker.

When it comes to attributing specific weather events to climate change, media coverage reflects the fact that both scientists and journalists are wrestling with the subject. Some reporters attempt to summarize the state of the science in their own lay language, while others stick more closely to the wording found in reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other recognized sources. Below is a sampling of this coverage as captured by the KSJ Tracker in 2011.

The question: is this weather disaster caused by climate change?
Wrong question.
Here's the right question: is climate change making this storm worse than it would have been otherwise?
Answer: Absolutely.

(Michael Lemonick, Climate Central, August 29, 2011, "Irene’s Potential for Destruction Made Worse by Global Warming, Sea Level Rise."


What we're seeing this year is not just an anomalous year, but a harbinger of things to come," with heat waves, droughts and other extreme weather, [NOAA Administrator Jane] Lubchenco said Wednesday at an American Geophysical Union science conference in San Francisco.
(Seth Borenstein, Associated Press, December 7, 2011, "Billion-dollar weather disasters smash US record.")


The IPCC and other scientific groups, such as the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, have reconfirmed over the past decade that greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, and deforestation, have led to a 1.4-degree rise in average global-surface-temperatures worldwide in the past century. That rise, the IPCC says, is likely to increase, with at least 2-in-3 odds that climate extremes have already worsened because of man-made greenhouse gases.
(Dan Vergano and Doyle Rice, USA Today, November 18, 2011, "Report: Climate change worsens extreme weather events.")


In October, Stefan Rahmstorf and Dim Coumou published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science that looked at the 2010 heat wave in Moscow, when temperatures hit record highs and killed hundreds. The researchers examined more than a century of data and used statistical techniques to tease out natural variability from the long-term warming trend. They concluded there was an 80 percent likelihood that Moscow’s heat wave would never have occurred without man-made global warming.
(Brad Plumer, Washington Post, November 18, 2011, When should we blame climate change for natural disasters?")


While it is "likely" that anthropogenic influences are behind the changes in cold days and warm days, there is only "medium confidence" that they are behind changes in extreme rainfall events, and "low confidence" in attributing any changes in tropical cyclone activity to greenhouse gas emissions or anything else humanity has done.
(Richard Black, BBC, November 13, 2011, "Mixed messages on climate ‘vulnerability’")


The standard answer to the question "Was Irene (or the recent flooding along the Missouri River, or the current record-breaking Texas drought, or [choose your own favorite example]) caused by global warming?" is: No one event can be definitively attributed to climate change (though in some cases, you can get pretty close). Hurricanes fall into the category of “weather,” which is driven partly by large and predictable forces and partly by those that are stochastic, or random. How about posing the question this way: Are more events like Irene what you would expect in a warming world? Here the answer is a straightforward “yes.” In fact, experts have been warning for years that New York will become increasingly vulnerable to storm surges and flooding as the planet heats up.
(Elizabeth Kolbert, New Yorker, August 29, 2011, "Hurricane Irene and Global Warming: A Glimpse of the Future?")


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