July 2012 Archives

Let's Just Talk About The Weather

You can look to the Olympics to see records broken, or you can experience everyday excitement noting records set by 2012 global temperature highs, flooding episodes, Greenland ice melt, weather catastrophe insurance losses, and millions of people displaced by extreme weather and climate change. Everyone's worried about this, despite what you hear - even the media.

Climate Change Media Fail?

The poor besieged media. As newspaper income plunges, papers continue to lay-off local reporters, publishers contract workers who mine US databases from the Philippines, and armed robbers attack journalists who still have jobs - even in the US. Now this: The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Media Matters, Huffington Post Green, and others accuse the media of ignoring the link between climate change and the weather catastrophes. Said Media Matters:

Life of Pi by Neil BabraIllustration by Neil Babra.
Used with permission.

"The major television and print outlets largely ignored climate change in their coverage of wildfires in Colorado, New Mexico and other Western states. All together, only 3 percent of the reports mentioned climate change..."

Huff Post Green wrote:

"The media just might be starting to see the obvious link between climate change and extreme weather...Given the extreme weather we've been seeing lately, it's becoming (finally) clear to many journalists that we have a trend in our weather patterns"

It's true that many meteorologists don't believe human activity causes climate change. Perhaps it's a job-securing stance, since many work for large energy interests, although in 2010, three-quarters of meteorologists polled said they hesitate to talk of climate change because they fear "audience backlash".

Scientist Backlash

Also, let's not forget, not too long ago scientists berated reporters who linked weather with climate change. In 2005, scientists advocated saying "climate change", not "global warming", because saying "global warming" could lead people to think that every time a snowstorm blew through there was no global warming. Reporters generally went along with this reasoning and also stressed after every hurricane, flood, or heat wave that no one event could be attributed "climate change". In July, 2010, for instance, Time wrote:

"Just as the record-breaking snowstorms of this past winter on East Coast didn't disprove climate change, a record-breaking heat wave doesn't seal the deal either. Weather and climate aren't the same thing. To use a World Cup analogy (which allows me to link to more Lego football, this time in German), it's as if the players on the soccer pitch represent the weather, and climate is the team manager."

If sports comparisons didn't click with you, a HuffPo reporter came up this:

"...think of weather as a one-night stand. Then climate would be raising the kid resulting from that night for the next two decades. One immediately leads to the other, but the two are completely different phenomenon. And that is why we have two distinct fields of study: meteorology and climatology."

Pick your analogy. As Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground summed it up when critiquing Al Gore's movie "The Inconvenient Truth": "I was glad to see that he didn't blame the heat wave on global warming--he merely said that more events of this nature will be likely in the future."

This is still the message, and it may seem clear as a cool autumn morning to you and me, but perhaps broadcasters, in their nightly frenzy of hair spraying, parka donning, and witness interviewing, view it as an unnecessary cluster of crazy-making detail and nuance. 30 second spots depend on very cut-and-dried events. Show yellow tape and police carrying evidence-bags. Say murder. Show smoke and flames. Say fire. Show devastating weather. Say global warming. No, say climate change. No, say it isn't necessarily climate change, but as scientists explain...

Worry For the Animals

So could we imagine this is why so many news shows default to saying "heat wave" while they turn the cameras on - zoo animals? For the past few years news shows have produced thousands of stories and pictures of tigers and sloths, elephants and porcupines cooling off in the heat -- cutely eating popsicles, playing in pools, and being attentively hosed down by zookeepers. Zoos make the incessant heat a selling point:

ZooIceBundtCake.png

SayHeatWave.png

I suppose trying to get in cheaper by saying "global warming" would ruin the spirit of it. As the climate changes, one can find instructional videos on how to make "tiger popsicles" - frozen treats from various ingredients - real blood, real chicks, Gatorade, and water. All of this, plus more. Reporters who could focus our attention on impending calamities instead spin magical bedtime stories. As the Weather Channel reported recently:

"At the Houston Zoo a snow day offered heat relief for animals for the second summer in a row. TXU Energy provided the man-made snow while zoo keepers provided the fun by building snowmen for the elephants..."

Fun.

Redefining Nonfiction

Where to turn for science? While snowmen for the elephants passes as news, Discovery Communications, "the world's #1 nonfiction media company", recently re-aired an Animal Planet show about mermaids so convincing in its nonfictioness that the the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) first fielded a barrage "is it true?" phone calls, then felt compelled to issue a press release asserting that mermaids weren't real.

In response, Discovery Channel bloggers either defended the show as masterful theater "like the Blair Witch Project"; or baited readers: "The real question is, what do you believe?" Readers ate it up:

"I totally think this is real. not the magical mermaids we hear about from drunk sailors but the evolved kind. i am a christian and dont believe in the whole evolution thing, but what we have here is fact..."[sic]

The comment could be that of a child who won't let go of Santa (or someone aping a child), but theirs is an all-ages fantasy-reality mix-up. When adults experience derechos, or see walls of flame like nothing firemen have ever witnessed, they exclaim, "just like a movie!" When people hear about global cooling, or explorers "seeing mermaids" they want to own that "fact".

At Least This is Where we Focus our Despair

This summer's extreme weather hints that we're losing our cavalier climate wager. It's not only scientists who see the tangible repercussions of wantonly shoveling greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Frequently, people show open concern about climate change. More people scorned Animal Planet's "Mermaids, Body Found", than declared undying faith in mermaid evolution. Recently, even some industry paid denialist-researchers seemed compelled to acknowledge long documented anthropogenic warming.

Perhaps we're collectively realizing that although the need for action on climate change may be a tough pill to swallow, there's no escape. Blood popsicles aside, there's not much to see at the zoo on very hot days. Zookeepers say the heat makes the animals "tired in the afternoon". Polar bears and sea lions slip into pools, while other animals are "allowed to return to their 'backstage bedrooms' to cool off".

Hopefully, although we fret over every poll reporting people's unexplainable trust of meteorologists, the same polls show that more people trust scientists - 74% - than any other source.

Overall, it seems that people are eeking away from climate denialism, which is good, because in the end, climate doesn't care whether we *choose* to believe physics and chemistry. Sea level still rises when North Carolina politicians outlaw it. Oceans continue to heat up when those same politicians 'compromise' with a moratorium on current science that local headlines call "a blend of science". So escape, as you will be invited to, to prince and princess fairy tales, to lands inhabited by unicorns, mermaids, and talking tigers, or to soothing climate tall tales. But remember, that science, wondrous as it is, doesn't "blend" with fairy tales like a scoop of protein powder in a mango ice cream milkshake.

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NOTES:

Thanks to Neil Babra, illustrator, writer, etc. for letting us use his illustration of "Life of Pi".

We read Yann Martel's magical book "The Life of Pi", on a train in India several years ago over a couple of sleepless nights. The movie, by director Ang Lee, will be released in November/December, 2012. The studio recently posted previews online.

We wrote about TXU in "TXU-Greenmail?"

We wrote about the hypocrisy of city officials who after a disaster denounce people who move into disaster prone areas, but before a disaster prevent precautionary measures like building moratoriums - for economic growth reasons, in FEMA and Disaster

We wrote about climate change awareness and communication in "Sea Change or Littoral Disaster?"; "Climate Change, Fueling the Debate", and many others.

We wrote about science TV programming in "Science Programming: Penguins and the Lethal Cannon"; and animals portrayed in media in Mongooses and Snakes - Combat Training; and "March On Penguins", and others.

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