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Do You Change the Weather When You Change the Climate?

July 3, 2012

This article is re-posted from Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.

FAIR has noted the tendency of corporate media to play down the connection of extreme weather to climate change. (See Neil deMause’s piece in Extra!, 8/11.) This summer, as the country is beset by another devastating wave of drought and fires, the approach seems to be to acknowledge climate change–in the 10th paragraph–but end up by concluding that it’s impossible to say whether there’s any connection between climate change and any particular weather phenomenon. As in this L.A. Times piece (7/2/12):

Since 2000, it has not been uncommon for wildfire seasons to end with a tally of 7 million to 9 million blackened acres nationally. Though total burned acreage dropped during a few years of milder weather, it spiraled again last year when flames galloped across parched Texas.

Researchers predict that rising temperatures associated with climate change will lead to more wildfires in much of the West. But it is hard to tease out the effects of global warming from natural climate cycles, which in past centuries have seized the region with long, severe droughts.

“We’ve had conditions like this in the past,” [Forest Service research ecologist Bob] Keane said. “So you can’t say with any degree of certainty…that this is climate change. But what you can say is that it certainly meets the model of climate change.”

On a conceptual level, this is just wrong: It’s not as though there are some weather events that are caused by climate change and some that just happened, and there’s some way to tell one from the other. Once you’ve altered the atmosphere, every single weather phenomenon–every storm, every dry spell, every unremarkably pleasant day–is a result of that altered atmosphere. If we had not changed the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide from 280 parts per million to almost 400 parts per million, in other words, we would have entirely different weather every day.

That’s not to say that we didn’t have storms and droughts and pleasant days before we changed the climate. But scientists can tell you whether we’d be more or less likely to have any given type of weather with an unaltered climate. And with droughts and forest fires, the answer is clear: We’d be having less of them. This is something reporters should be pointing out in every story on the extreme weather of the summer of 2012.

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