Those crazy, radical hippies at Bloomberg Businessweek have gone and done it. With the blunt, no-nonsense cover that likely already appeared on your Facebook feed or Twitter stream or Tumblr dashboard, Businessweek dared state with certainty what so many media outlets have nervously danced around in their coverage of Superstorm Sandy: It’s Global Warming, Stupid.
The cover is sure to generate some controversy, but, as Bloomberg Businessweek editor Josh Tyrangiel tweeted, “only among the stupid.”
And, I’d add, the nefarious purveyors of disinformation – the merchants of doubt – that are in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry. (Who probably aren’t stupid…just greedy.)
While the cover is an instant classic, the article itself is just as great – clear, direct, and unequivocal in the connection between extreme weather like Superstorm Sandy and manmade global climate disruption.
Not to dismiss the rest of the mediasphere. There has been an encouraging abundance of smart, nuanced coverage of the climate connection. Rather than rehash the science here, I’d strongly encourage you to check out these must-read analyses:
- Joe Romm on how climate change makes hurricanes like Sandy more destructive.
- Andrew Freedman on how global warming made Sandy worse.
- Andrew Leonard’s interview with NCAR climatogolist Kevin Trenberth, which asks, specifically, “what’s the right way to think about” climate change and Hurricane Sandy.
- Even some mainstream media outlets have done well, like this NBC Nightly News piece on how dramatic weather patterns are the “new normal.”
Read and watch all the coverage above, and you’ll notice a similarity in how the issue is framed. It’s not: “Does Sandy prove global warming?, or: Did climate change cause Sandy?
When those questions are posed, coverage fails.
It’s worth noting that an entire meta-dialogue about how to discuss this “climate attribution” question has blossomed over the past week, mostly through Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth posts. (And if you really want to get into the weeds, a meta-meta-dialogue has sprung up around the various responsibilities of journalists and scientists and climate advocates in talking about all of this. )
I'd actually submit that these questions of direct climate attribution are the questions that the merchants of doubt want us to be asking, and flailing to answer. Because the answers are unclear and unsatisfying.
No, Sandy doesn’t prove global warming. (Decades of evidence and research by the world’s best climatologists does.) And whether climate change “caused” Sandy is subject to semantic dispute.
Which is why it’s the entirely wrong question to ask. A pointless, semantic question rooted in ignorance of the science and the subject.
This is crucial, and nobody explains it better than Kevin Trenberth in his paper “How To Relate Climate Extremes to Climate Change.”
The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question. All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be….
David Roberts echoes the sentiment very clearly, in a paragraph that I've been forwarding widely to curious friends and family:
There is no division, in the physical world, between “climate change storms” and “non-climate change storms.” Climate change is not an exogenous force acting on the atmosphere. There is only the atmosphere, changing. Everything that happens in a changed atmosphere is “caused” by the atmosphere, even if it’s within the range of historical variability. Climate change is just the term we use to describe those changes.
Which brings us back to the brilliance of the Bloomberg Businessweek cover: it really is global warming, stupid.
It's not “climate change caused” or “proof of global warming.” It is global warming: We know for a fact that greenhouse gases from human activities have warmed the air and the oceans. We know for a fact that every aspect of weather is a result of climate conditions. It is impossible to say that Hurricane Sandy would have formed in any other climate than the one that humans have influenced.
Superstorm Sandy is not proof nor evidence of climate change. It is simply a weather event born of a climate, changed.