I get that it is complicated. I understood all too well that the technically correct answer to the reductive question: ‘is the heat wave caused by climate change?’ is a carefully nuanced “we can never say for sure whether one individual weather event is ’caused’ by climate change, but climate change does make extreme events more likely’. I know that if you want a more precise assessment of the extent to which climate change has made an extreme weather event more likely you need to wait several months for the computer models to run and even then you are going to get an answer about the percentage increase in likelihood that is meaningless to many people and as such difficult to boil down to a headline. I appreciate the critical of importance of scientists using precise language and not overstating their levels of certainty.
But I also know how that cautious refusal to use a shorthand answer to a seemingly simple but hugely complex question plays in a media environment ever more compromised by both the desire to present binary certainties and the spin of bad faith, shadily funded actors.
Moreover, I can’t see how the arcane detail of climate attribution efforts explains the mainstream media’s decision to either exclude climate change from reporting on extreme heat altogether or its insistence on dowsing its coverage in a surfeit of caution about the potential relationship with climate change.
The simple fact is the mainstream media does not apply such high standards of precise attribution to any other phenomena that I can think of. The metaphors are numerous and informative. When Manchester City wins yet another game of football sports reporters and fans do not say ‘it may be because they are the richest team in the country with the ability to buy the best manager and players at inflated prices, but we also have to note they won matches before they became so rich so this particular victory may have nothing to do with their petro-state funded financial largesse’. You’ll search long and hard for a doctor who will offer the assessment ‘yes, you’ve been eight stone overweight for 10 years, but you might have developed the diabetes anyway, so as you were with the doughnuts’. Or, as Martyn Williams observed this morning on Twitter, “when I shook the tree all the apples fell off, but studies have shown they fall off anyway so we are not sure it was the shaking that did it”.
Scientists necessarily have to maintain complete rigour in their communications and journalists have the same requirement to insist on accuracy at all times. But you can present the relationship between manmade climate change and extreme heat in real time without underplaying the obvious climate risks and overplaying the inevitable uncertainty that comes with the intellectual exercise of attribution. All you need to do is provide some context and apply the same level of detail and caveats you would apply to other stories involving complex cause and effect.
We know with an extremely high degree of confidence that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have caused more than a degree of warming since the Industrial Revolution. We know this increases the risk of temperature and other weather extremes and has all kinds of other, harder to predict, implications. We know 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have been since 2000. We know the world has not experienced temperatures below the 20th century average since 1976. We know with a high degree of confidence that unless we build a net zero emission economy within decades we risk temperature increases in excess of 2C that could have catastrophic consequences. We know these consequences could lead to food security and migratory pressures that makes the current debate about migration look like a golden age of genteel deliberation. We know there are currently 30C+ temperatures and wildfires in the Arctic Circle. All of this is accepted by virtually every government and leading business on the planet. None of this is controversial, at least outside of the fevered margins of the newly emboldened far right.
Present record weather extremes properly in this context and then you can start to recognise them as the teachable moment they surely should be. You could launch immediate consultations on how to strengthen building standards to cope with increased risk of heat stress. You could actually talk about the new Climate Adaptation Plan, which the government launched last week but which you would be forgiven for missing. You could conect the dots between welcome new investment in clean energy and the beyond urgent need to decarbonise the whole economy that is created by climate change. You could simply use your platform to tell people about what is happening and how it is going to shape geopolitics, the economy, basically all our lives for the rest of the century and beyond.
You could point out that if climate projections are even half right then in years to come people will look back at our oh so careful debates about whether climate change could be said to ’cause’ a heat wave and laugh. And then weep.
If the mainstream media really is incapable of moving onto better questions about the most urgent long term challenge we all face, then the best answer to the question ‘is the heat wave caused by climate change?’ is not ‘it’s complicated’ or ‘maybe’ or ‘let’s talk about the caveats first’, accurate as those answers undoubtedly are.
It is ‘yes, but…’ or ‘this is precisely what we predicted climate impacts would look like’.
If you want the detail, it is an acknowledgement, as Professor Tim Osborn, director of research at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, told the Guardian, that the baseline on which weather effects play out is now “significantly” higher than the baseline we experienced in the 20th century.
It is an explanation, as Professor Nick Cowern made clear on Twitter this morning, that it is pointless separating the contribution the jet stream makes to high temperatures from the contribution climate change makes to high temperatures – they are inextricably linked.
Better still, journalists could just apply the same standards they apply to virtually every other field by placing the story of the heat wave in its true alarm bell-ringing context and giving the necessary caveats the weight and prominence they actually deserve. ‘Is the heat wave caused by climate change?’ It’s a stupid question, but to all intents and purposes, yes it is.
First published by Business Green, 23 July 2018.