Thursday, July 19, 2012

NEWS BLOG: On climate change, media needs to connect the dots

Posted By on Thu, Jul 19, 2012 at 8:50 AM

The news stories about drought, record temperatures, wilting crops, and freak storms - seriously, who ever heard of a derecho before the past few weeks - are piling up.

The stories raise, or should raise, questions about how these events tie in with climate change, yet many of them don't. I'm beginning to share the frustrations of environmentalists and scientists who say the media are doing a poor job of connecting the dots.

This morning's Democrat and Chronicle features an article with the headline: "Overheated cows in the region are producing less milk." In short, the article says that the oppressive heat wave that's affected most of the country is causing cows discomfort, which is causing them to eat less and produce less milk. And that may make dairy products more expensive for consumers at some point.

This same heat wave, and accompanying drought, is causing large crop losses in the Midwest. Some local farmers are starting to worry about their crops, too. The hot, dry weather is also fueling wildfires in the west.

And as for the storms, New York City got nailed with a sudden, intense one yesterday. The New York Daily News put up a photo essay of sorts and you can find it here.

Weather happens. So does bad weather and drought. And to say that climate change is the definitive cause of any single weather event is a reach. But climate researchers have identified trends in temperature, precipitation, storm intensity and frequency, and drought that show long-term changes. They project that heat waves will become hotter, longer, and more frequent; that short-term droughts will become drier, will last longer than in previous years, and will happen more often. And about those freak rain and wind storms? They'll be more common and more destructive.

There's a climate adaptation consultant, Michael Cote, that I follow on Tumblr. Yesterday, he had his own brief post on derechos. It included an analogy I liked that, while perhaps oversimplified, neatly explains the ties between climate change and weather:

"Bottom line, think of a baseball player on steroids. You don't know which homer is attributable to the 'roids, but you know that 20% or so of his stats are from the juice."

"Same with climate change," Cote wrote. "You don't know which storms are due to the juiced up atmosphere."

When Syracuse broke 100 degrees the other day, the Post-Standard reached out to Cornell University Professor David Wolfe. The result: an article that does connect some dots. The piece is premised on a single, basic question: what did the record temperature mean to a climate scientist?

Wolfe's answer: "What we are seeing today is the kind of thing we will see more frequently in the future. There's very little doubt about that."

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