It wasn’t that long ago that climate scientists and their supporters mocked the critics who looked out their window, saw snow in the winter, and declared “global warming” to be a ridiculous hoax.
The climate scientists were right about that. You can’t predict the future by looking at today’s weather, even when the weather is setting records.
Likewise, my latest understanding of climate science (which is always sketchy at best, and certainly in need of updating now) is that we haven’t yet seen the “signal” of climate change in the hurricane data or the weather extremes. But that view is perhaps a year old. Has science updated its opinion to say the two super-hurricanes and our heat extremes are indeed a credible signal of the beginning of a climate catastrophe?
I watch a lot of news, continuously sampling both sides. I haven’t yet seen a climate scientist weigh in on our recent weather extremes. (Perhaps I missed a few?) So I have no idea whether we are seeing something statistically meaningful right now or not.
Let me put this in more stark terms.
If the recent hurricanes and weather extremes are meaningful in terms of climate change, we really, really, really need to know that. THAT is NEWS. In fact, no news is bigger than that news. Even the risk from North Korea is smaller than the risk of total climate catastrophe. So if the current weather extremes are statistically meaningful, and science confirms, why-the-hell isn’t that the lead story everywhere?
On the flip side, if climate scientists do NOT believe our current weather extremes are meaningful in terms of climate predictions, I’d say THAT should be the lead story too, simply because so many people believe they are seeing the beginning of the end times, climate-wise.
So why is the biggest story in the world conspicuously missing from the news? Keep in mind that climate change is still the biggest story even if the hurricanes are NOT telling us something new. The public wants to know how big the threat is. We’re scared!!!
Instead of that news, we get mostly crickets.
My working hypothesis is that science doesn’t know one way or another whether the current weather extremes are predictive of things to come. And if they are not yet sure, they would say as much. And that would be a problem for news organizations dedicated to reporting climate science risks as real and dire. If you think the world is best served by convincing the public that climate risks are real, your most socially responsible play in this case is to ignore climate scientists at the moment and let the public believe (without the benefit of scientific support, at least right now) that current temperature extremes are a clear sign of climate collapse.
Take this guy, for example. He’s typical of the what I am seeing on Twitter and even from my friends.
[If Tumblr were not broken right now, you would be seeing an image of a tweet that mocks climate critics for thinking the hurricanes are not proof of climate change. But instead you see this boring text because Tumblr won’t accept an image this morning.]
This fine gentleman believes our current hurricanes are indeed a clear signal of climate change. To be perfectly clear, he could be right. But if he is right, it is not because he is well-informed or smart. It would be a coincidence in this case. As far as I know, climate scientists are not onboard with Roger. They might confirm his gut feeling at some point soon, but for now, Roger is doing his own climate science by watching CNN.
So we have an odd situation in which news organizations can report the most “truthful” version of the reality — according to them — by NOT reporting the best thinking on the topic. Here I’m assuming the best thinking is that it is too soon to know how important recent weather extremes are to our predictions of climate change. But if that story is reported, viewers will get the wrong idea and conclude that climate change is not such a big deal even though these weather extremes are clearly a big deal.
Conversely, by not putting climate scientists on TV, and avoiding the trap of having them say, “We can’t tell yet,” which would be over-interpreted by skeptics, news organizations might be doing the most ethically defensible thing they could do. If they believe climate change is a big problem, and they want the public to agree, these hurricanes are doing a great job of persuasion without the benefit of science. It’s hard for the public to see what is happening right now as coincidence, or a normal variation in weather. It just doesn’t feel like normal. It feels like the first big signal of climate change to many observers because they have been primed for confirmation bias on that topic.
If you are a producer for CNN, and you believe climate change is an enormous problem that the public needs to understand, you would hesitate to allow any segment on the air that conflicts with that objective. For example, you would not give equal time to climate skeptics. And while all attention is on the hurricanes, you might not want a climate scientist to come on the air and say some version of “We have no idea whether these specific weather extremes mean something. We’ll need more data to know if this is a real trend or a blip.” That message would sound to skeptics like confirmation of their skepticism, even though it isn’t. Not even close. But it would be received that way by skeptics because of confirmation bias. Everyone hears what they want to hear.
So the biggest story in the world is largely ignored by news organizations because — and here I speculate — reporting any uncertainty about climate change is not as persuasive as allowing the public to look out the window and generate their own illusions of certainty while also frightened to death.
What would Sam Harris say about the ethics in this situation? Should news organizations lie by omission when they sincerely believe doing so is good for the planet? Or should they put scientists on the air to say “We don’t know yet” and give fuel to the climate skeptics whom they believe are jeopardizing the future of humanity?
I say give us the truth in this case, even if the truth is “We don’t know yet.”
You might like my books because hurricanes.
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