Today’s Seattle Times’ headline seemed to say it all: Our new ‘normal’ weather: wetter and warmer. At last, I thought, a front page story on the very real impacts of climate change in our region.
Things start off great. The article acknowledges scientific certainty that average temperatures in Washington have risen half a degree. Yes, it acknowledges that the United States has seen a 1.5 degree increase over the last thirty years. Yes, it says: if you’re among the people who feels like Seattle is getting warmer, you’re right. Things are getting wetter and weirder.
But the reporting deteriorates when the climate-connection comes up. Here’s what comes at the very end of the article:
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There’s no simple explanation for the overall changes in Seattle or nationally — or even a consensus as to whether they’re a big deal, given the often polarizing debate surrounding global climate change.
Some scientists say the data provide further evidence that greenhouse gases are building up in the atmosphere, heating the planet.
But Tim Ball, chairman of the Natural Resources Stewardship Project, which is skeptical of global warming, told the Los Angeles Times he considers the half-degree rise in the normal U.S. temperature “essentially insignificant.”
Really? Why is the Times emphasizing the tired, old, political debate on climate change rather than giving readers the straight story about scientific consensus? Why do they give the quote—or any ink at all for that matter to a climate-science denier? (When over 97 percent of climate scientists agree on climate change, why only give voice to the negligible minority?).
Here’s the thing: It’s not just about the Seattle Times missing a chance—and responsibility—to get the story right. Downplaying the local reality of climate change, and ignoring the warnings of our scientific community is a public disservice. Because the “new normal” isn’t normal at all.
Update 7/11: Here we go again; another gimmick from the Washington Policy Center. This time, they’ve challenged us to find a climate scientist to back up words I didn’t say:
[W]e challenge Sightline to find one climate scientist at the UW Department of Atmospheric Sciences who says recent weather patterns (unusually hot in 2009 or unusually cold in 2011), are the result of anthropogenic climate change.
But in my post last Friday I never claimed that the weather in 2009 or 2011 was caused by climate change. I also never said, contrary to Myer’s assertion, that “it is the ‘responsibility’ of the Times to link the current weather to climate change.” What I did say, is that the Times has a responsibility “to get the story right.” My post is a media critique, not a scientific one: I argue that the Times article does a very poor job of explaining the state of climate science.
That said, Myer’s misreading of my post makes me realize that I could have been a little clearer. My kicker would have been better if written as “Seattle Times shows Washington is warming, but errs in explaining climate change.” Furthermore this sentence, “Downplaying the local reality of climate change, and ignoring the warnings of our scientific community is a public disservice” implies certainty about the climate science behind current local impacts when there is some uncertainty. (What is certain, however, is the global trend in warming that we’re already seeing.) That sentence could have been more clearly written: “Omitting an accurate discussion of climate change when talking about long-term weather trends and ignoring the warnings of our scientific community is a public disservice.”
Again, the point of my post—which Myers seems to have overlooked—is that when writing about long-term weather trends, it’s irresponsible to bring up climate change (which the Times did), but fall back on the tired, old trope about a “debate” over climate science. The debate is over. The vast, vast, vast majority of climate scientists agree that global warming is happening. To frame the story in a way that implies the scientific verdict is still out—and then give the last word (and only quote) to the lone climate-science denier—isn’t responsible reporting.