Breaking News: It’s Cold in January

By Pat Walters
Naughton Fellow

Temperatures dropped below freezing in New York City this morning, prompting residents to don heavy coats, wool scarves and winter caps.

Is that news?

This week it is.

The Weather Channel reported that this past weekend’s balmy weather broke temperature records in cities throughout the Northeast. The weather was front-page news. Winter-related business tanked in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; allergy season struck early across the Northeast; and the director of the Coney Island, N.Y., Polar Bear Club has thought about cancelling this year’s season of winter swimming.

Explaining this kind of weather to readers is tough. It turns out the winter warmth was mostly the fault of El Niño, a warming of parts of the Pacific Ocean that causes widespread, but
temporary, changes to weather patterns in the Western Hemisphere. It generally strikes every five to seven years.

But many reports cited a contributing factor, a larger, longer-term and politically charged one: global warming. A group of British scientists predicted last week that a combination of El Niño and global warming might make 2007 the hottest year on record.

The science of climate change, though, has produced far more questions than answers. And fortunately, I didn’t see a single report that claimed a warm weekend definitively proves that global climate change is happening and is caused by people. I did, however, see a few man-on-the-street quotes that drew that line.

Here, then, is the challenge: How do journalists write about the relationship between strange weather and climate change without exaggerating or oversimplifying the issue? How do we contextualize weather events and keep our reporting accurate and nuanced?

First, understand that weather and climate are two different things. Joel Achenbach, a staff writer for The Washington Post who also writes a science column for National Geographic magazine, makes this clear in a really fine piece of analysis that ran in Sunday’s newspaper. Near the middle of the piece, he writes:

Denver got four feet of snow in December. The third big storm blew
in Friday. Snowdrifts of 10 feet! An automobile-snuffing avalanche in a
mountain pass west of town! In Denver, January is still January.

Because
what we are experiencing and what Denver is experiencing are both part
of a thing called weather, not climate. Climate change is real, but
it’s a background phenomenon, the cicada-song white noise on the
horror-movie soundtrack, distinct from the thuds and screams and moans
of specific weather events.

Like all good science writers, Achenbach used metaphor to illustrate this complicated idea.

Paul Douglas, chief meteorologist at WCCO-TV in Minneapolis, a city that, by the way, is in the midst of one of its warmest winters in history, offered this description of the relationship between weather and climate:

“Weather is whether you’ll need shorts or long johns today,” he said in a telephone interview. “Climate is the ratio of shorts to long johns in your closet.”

Andrew Revkin, a science writer for The New York Times who has written extensively about climate change, told me the connection between any weather event and climate is a matter of statistics, and that it is essential for reporters to acknowledge this in their coverage.

“There are certain boilerplate sentences you can use,” he said in a telephone interview. “[For example:] Rising global temperature [is projected to cause] stronger, whatever, hurricanes, downpours, fill in the blank; that sort of ABC pick one [sentence]. [Another is:] No particular weather event can be attributed to human actions. In fact, I have that sentence. I just cut it out of different stories.

“Once you have that in, you can go on about how wacky and weird, strange and fantastic the weather is.”

If establishing the distinction between weather and climate is the first challenge, detailing that distinction is the next one.

These days, Achenbach told me, climate change is as much a political story as it is a science story. Within hours of his Sunday piece appearing online, it had received mounds of criticism from across the political spectrum. Climate change is a minefield for reporters.

“Everything that’s written about [global warming] will be taken to have some subtle political message,” he said in a telephone interview.

Politics may be hard to avoid when writing about global warming, but Revkin said it’s important to try to keep it out of explanatory pieces.

“If you’re writing about a science question, make sure you’re asking scientists about it,” he said. “There’s plenty of room for advocates, on both sides, in a policy story.”

Achenbach pointed out that a scientist’s background is an important factor in analyzing the things he tells you.

“Climatologists and meteorologists don’t sing from the same hymnal,” he said. “They’re really from different camps.”

Climatologists, he said, are more inclined to explain weather as a manifestation of climate patterns. Meteorologists, on the other hand, often see weather as a set of isoloated events. Talk to both, and pair the interviews in your story.

Revkin threw some contacts my way. It’s important, he said, to find someone who doesn’t have an axe to grind. Here are his top four organizations to contact for information about climate change.

All this explanatory reporting, of course, takes up valuable page space, or, for the people who bring us our local forecast every evening, air time.

“[Global warming] is one of the most complex issues of our time, and it doesn’t lend itself well to ten-second sound bytes,” Douglas, the WCCO-TV meteorologist, said. “It’s hard to give this the context and perspective it deserves, certainly, in a regular two- or three-minute weather window.”

Recently, though, Douglas has been doing longer pieces. He said he has been getting out from in front of the weather map, tromping into the field to tell stories about the tangible effects of climate change. He tries to show how things are changing.

So far, he said, viewers have responded well to the coverage.

It’s impossible, the Post‘s Achenbach said, to write about weather without writing about climate change. It’s what people are talking about. Right or wrong, when it gets warm in January, people blame global warming, not El Niño.

“If you’re gonna write about the weather today, you have to learn to write about the climate, too,” he said. “It should be part of your basic intellectual arsenal when you sit down at the keyboard.”

So study up. Find some scientists who you think will tell it to you straight. And be willing to make it clear to your readers that even the scientists don’t know everything yet.

Yesterday, Achenbach blogged about the connection between El Niño and global warming. So, could global warming cause El Niño to occur more frequently? Achenbach: “That’s unclear. Dare we say, no one knows.”

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