The idealist in me really thought we would have gotten past this by now, but it seems that one of the biggest obstacles remaining in climate science messaging is the disconnect between weather and climate. Vocal deniers still trumpet about cold weather, and both sides of the issue correctly assert that individual weather events cannot be definitively attributed to global warming. A largely confused public could use some clarity on this.
Communicating the importance of climate change has always been difficult, given that it is a slow process (well, relative to human lives at least) that doesn't have any particularly tangible thing on which to hang the message. Sea level rise is not a visible process until Bangladesh is already under water, and Rhode Island-sized ice shelves only slide into the sea every so often. Journalists and advocates resort to pretty faces like polar bears and penguins, or the sharp contrast of a living coral reef with a bleached and dead one.
These images, though, clearly haven't been enough to dispel continuing disinformation about the contrast between what you see out your window and what the world will look like in 10 years, 50 years, 100 years. Hurricanes and droughts seem like good images to convince the public, but how many times have you seen something along the lines of: "An individual storm cannot be blamed on global warming"? So, when the mercury drops below freezing, it means global warming was a hoax, but when a hugely powerful hurricane drowns a city, suddenly everyone and their mother understands the science a bit better.
I know that the hurricane habit is a good one. Even though there is increasing evidence that warming is probably causing hurricanes to get stronger, and will almost certainly cause longer and worse droughts in various parts of the world, it is correct to stay away from "global warming caused Katrina" kinds of headlines. What bothers me about this is that is basically just taking advantage of a loophole to avoid an important point.
I'll dip into the sports analogy bag to explain. Mark McGwire hit 583 homeruns in his career, currently tied for the eighth most ever hit. But after his career was over it became (mostly) clear that he had, um, enhanced himself a bit (read: he injected lots of drugs into his ass). He gave one disastrous bit of testimony to Congress, and all of a sudden he is a pariah. His entire legacy is tainted, and last year he received only 22 percent of Hall of Fame votes (you need 75 percent to be elected). This is the man with the best home runs-per-at-bat rate in history (better than Babe Ruth), and only 22 percent of voters (all of whom are sports journalists, by the way) think he belongs in the sport's Hall of Fame.
But how many of those 583 home runs can be definitively linked to steroid use? Forget for a minute the fact that he never even really tested positive for anything (because testing hadn't been implemented yet). Even if we assume drug use, that doesn't tell us which of those hits would have landed 15 feet shorter, or if he would have been injured more often. But in this case, we the public take the opposite route from the climate change/weather version: we decide that they all were linked to steroid use.
Imagine if we, the climate science communicators, had somehow managed that coup in the public discourse. Yes, I know it's not true. But neither is the steroid/home run argument. I'm not advocating pretending an individual hurricane is the direct result of global warming, but I am advocating an increased focus on the bigger picture. Fine, an individual home run isn't tainted, but that 583 number looks hugely suspicious. Polar bears will only take you so far, and when cities drown and countries bake, journalists shouldn't be afraid to use those images to try and advance a scientific message.