Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Attributing Weather Events to Climate Change Is the Easy Part

Peter Hart posted on this blog (11/14/13) about the reluctance of corporate media to discuss climate change in connection to Typhoon Haiyan–a trend that we've talked about before with regards to extreme weather events (Extra!, 8/11; FAIR Blog, 7/2/12, 11/1/12). (We'll be discussing it again in the upcoming December 2013 issue of Extra!.)

There's a phrase that comes up a lot in news reports that do discuss the relationship between climate change and extreme weather that get the connection completely backward. Here it is in the New York Times story (11/12/13) Peter quoted:

Yet scientists remain cautious about drawing links between extreme storms like this typhoon and climate change. There is not enough data, they say, to draw conclusions about any single storm.

And on NBC Nightly News (11/11/13): "While scientists can't say whether climate change contributed to this particular typhoon, they believe global warming is making storms stronger."

Here's Bryan Walsh (11/11/13) on Time's website: "The reality is that it remains extremely difficult to attribute specific weather events to climate change." And Brad Plumer in the Washington Post (11/12/13):

Detecting a clear trend here is difficult, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded. And it's even harder to say whether the strength of a single storm like Haiyan can be attributed to man-made climate change.

The reason  all these statements are backwards is that attributing particular weather events to climate change is ridiculously easy: Every weather event in the modern world is attributable to climate change.  This is because weather is a chaotic system, which is to say it varies wildly based on initial conditions. Once we raised global temperature by a degree Celsius–which is an enormous intervention in the physical world–we irrevocably changed all weather, producing an entirely different set of events than the ones that would have otherwise occurred.

So climate change caused Typhoon Haiyan–in the sense that Haiyan would not have happened in the absence of climate change. Note that this is the most basic and obvious meaning of the word "cause."

Now, when journalists say that it's difficult to attribute a particular weather event to climate change, they're presumably saying something more complicated–perhaps something like "it's difficult to say whether a similar event could not have happened in the absence of climate change." Even with Haiyan–a storm more ferocious than any seen before in recorded history (Scientific American, 11/11/13)–you can always speculate that perhaps that record would have one day been broken in a world where people hadn't altered the atmosphere.

But to talk about "cause" on this level is misleading to news consumers–who I think, when they hear that, really are imagining some storms happening and others not on the basis of climate change. And it's unhelpful in terms of setting public policy, because it's defining "cause" in a way that makes it impossible to connect weather disasters to human activity.

It is possible, and important, to compare current weather events with the historical record, and point out how the current pattern differs. But it's not always easy to say what that pattern is, particularly since the climate change is an ongoing process, with a different average temperature this decade than there was last decade and than there will be next decade. The current weather is not the "new normal"; living humans will never see anything that can be referred to as "normal" again.

Journalists can help clear up this complicated situation by stressing the one thing that we know for sure: We changed the climate, and this is the weather we got as a result.

© 2021 Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)
Jim Naureckas

Jim Naureckas

Jim Naureckas is editor of FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting). He is the co-author of "Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error." He was an investigative reporter for In These Times and managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Spain Approves 'Solidarity' Tax to Make Nation's Top 0.1% Pay a Fairer Share

The country's finance minister said that looming changes are bound to make the tax code "more progressive, efficient, fair, and also enough to guarantee social justice and economic efficiency."

Kenny Stancil ·

'Time to Take to the Streets': Working Class Hold 'Enough Is Enough' Rallies Across UK

"Does a CEO need an extra zero at the end of their salary—or should nurses, posties, and teachers be able to heat their homes?" said one supporter ahead of the #EnoughIsEnough National Day of Action.

Julia Conley ·

Ukraine Responds to Putin Annexations With Fast-Track NATO Application

Lamenting the lack of any progress toward a diplomatic settlement, one anti-war campaigner asked: "Will the world stand idly by as we careen towards nuclear apocalypse?"

Jake Johnson ·

'Their Price Strategies Are Bearing Fruit': Oil and Coal Profits Surge 340%

A leading economist urged policymakers to "address corporate profiteering as a driver of inflation by reining in megacorporations and addressing the unsustainably high prices facing families around the country."

Kenny Stancil ·

'Don't Look Away': Tlaib Ties Death of 7-Year-Old Palestinian to US Aid to Israel

"$3.8 billion+ of our money is funding this. Enough. It must stop."

Jessica Corbett ·

Common Dreams Logo