Katharine Hayhoe: “Was this Hurricane Caused by Climate Change?”

October 16, 2018

Columbia Journalism Review:

THE FEROCITY OF HURRICANE MICHAEL came into view on Thursday as images of devastation filtered out of the Florida panhandle. Stories on the storm’s trail of ruin appear on the front pages of today’s New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. In a helicopter above Mexico City, Florida, CNN’s Brooke Baldwin captured footage of a city flattened by Michael’s powerful winds.

Reports on the immediate aftermath are vital to understanding the storm’s impact, but all of those mentioned above failed to include any mention of climate change. This is particularly disappointing because, just days before Michael made landfall, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report with a dismal assessment of current global conditions and a warning that the future, soon approaching, is much more dire than previously feared.

Climate scientists are cautious not to directly link rising sea levels and warming temperatures to any individual storm, but a basic theory holds: warmer water and air, along with rising sea levels, will lead to storms of greater intensity. Even though a straight line between climate change and Michael cannot yet be drawn (researchers will later be able to model the actual intensity of the storm compared to computer generated models), coverage of major storms that fails to address profound environmental problems fails to provide audiences with a full picture.

As our understanding of the impact of climate change expands, some journalists have taken up the challenge of bringing the topic into the discussion of storms like Michael. “Hurricane Michael isn’t a truly ‘natural disaster,’ John D. Sutter, a CNN investigative reporter, wrote. “Neither was Harvey in Houston. Nor Maria in Puerto Rico. Yet we continue to use that term. Doing so—especially in the era of climate change—is misleading if not dangerous.” In Thursday’s Times, Henry Fountain, a climate reporter, explained the “triple threat from climate change: more rain in larger storms on rising seas.The Atlantic’s Robertson Meyer explained how Michael’s sudden growth could be tied to rising sea levels and warming waters, writing that “scientists won’t formally know whether climate change played a role in Michael’s rapid intensification for several months. But local weather experts have already said Michael is exactly what they would expect to see in a climate-changed world.

Writing on the UN report, the Post’s Margaret Sullivan argued that “when it comes to climate change, we—the media, the public, the world—need radical transformation, and we need it now.” That transformation could include reporting on climate changes impact on any number of issues, from the economy to immigration to warfare. With the country focused on coverage of Michael’s destruction, the opportunity to bring climate change into the discussion is there for the taking, and it shouldn’t be ignored.


7 Responses to “Katharine Hayhoe: “Was this Hurricane Caused by Climate Change?””

  1. Roger Walker Says:

    It took me the whole week to accept that world leaders were not going to react to last Monday’s IPCC report. Silly me.

    The worst comment came, not surprisingly, from Australia, where the deputy prime minister said the government would not change policy “just because somebody might suggest that some sort of report [!] is the way we need to follow and everything that we should do”.

    Peter Sinclair makes the point that everyone is bending over backwards to orient discussion soothingly towards best case scenarios, but no one is talking about worst case scenarios. All credit then to Richard Alley for flapping his arms and thumping on the table and daring to go public with what scientists have been saying in conference corridors for the last ten years and more: we cannot exclude sea level rises of 15-20ft in the coming decades. Jim Hansen (who built the first climate change models for NASA 50 years ago – models which have been born out time and time again) makes the same point in the paper he published last year: “…multi-metre sea level rise by the middle of this century.”

    But this is where ‘business as usual’ is inexorably leading us. From emissions of 40Gt CO2e today to 52-58Gt by 2030, which means global warming of at least 3-4° by the end of the century is virtually locked in.

    So, Walker, get used to it. Stop trying to convince people – they don’t want to know. Find something else to spend your energy on.

    • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

      Do relate to the last sentence and by all means do other things. They do not need to be mutually exclusive as saving the world has a level of significance. Have gotten thru to two separate deniers with an elevator talk. A very small thing, but after the odd decade of bashing my head against thick as a brick stupidity it was a real buzz. Not defeated till you surrender.
      This months prime minister of Oz might pray the problem away.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      Stephen Schneider pointed out years ago that most processes play out over a bell curve – in the case of climate, one end would be “global warming will be the end of the world”, and the opposite would be “global warming would be good for you”.
      As we have gathered more observations, the “good for you” end seems less likely, which does not mean automatically “end of the world”, however there is a lot of really bad stuff between here and “end of the world”…..
      As Alley says, the uncertainty is mostly on the high side….

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Vote for the science-literate, perhaps, but people drawn to be professional scientists don’t necessarily know how to deal with the nasty realities of governance and legislation. It won’t help for them to know what should be done if the career politicians are running circles around them.

  2. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Please note that quite a few houses in Hurricane Michael’s landfall area were able to survive the wind and the gross power of the storm surge (surrounded, perhaps, by houses turned to kindling and rubble). These houses were built to be structurally resilient in the face of hurricanes.

    As an individual, what you can’t build against is loss of beach, loss of trees, salt water eating* electrical and metal infrastructure, road washouts, neighborhoods collapsing, and massive hits to local budgets.

    *NYC subway is still suffering chronic delays from Sandy pushing the ocean into their subways and corroding their electrical and electronic systems.

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