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Friday, December 30, 2011

Connecting dots on weather & climate: local newspaper shows how it's done

After two stories in two days by national-level media dropped the ball on global warming, my local paper, the Valley News, came through yesterday. Kudos!

Here is the magical (dare I call it remarkable?) text from the story "So Far, Winter Is a Washout" by Aimee Caruso:

Chris Bouchard, a meteorologist at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, Vt., said it's fairly unusual to have no snow in December, especially because the snowfall is just a few inches below normal.

"What's weird about it is it's been very warm, so a lot of (the snow) has melted, resulting in our measly snowpack," Bouchard said.

Last month was the third warmest November on record in Vermont, with an average temperature of 41.2.  The warmest year was 1948, with an average temperature of 42.6.

It's also been an unusually wet year, Bouchard said.  As of yesterday morning, 51.14 inches of melted precipitation made it the wettest year since records started being kept in 1894 ...

It's hard to say why Vermont has had four of its wettest years on record in the past six years, he said, but possible explanations include a transitory weather pattern or "some link to climate change.

"Warmer and wetter are two trends you would expect here in the Northeast with a warming climate," Bouchard said.
There now, that wasn't so hard, was it?

By contrast, a lump of coal goes out to the New York Times, which carried a story of similar length on the same subject (lack of snow, warm weather) Dec. 23, but managed to avoid any mention of global warming even though it included the following text: "Week after maddening week of unusually balmy temperatures have made snowfall scant in New England ... "

And a slightly smaller lump to the Associated Press, with an entry also dated Dec. 23 and titled "With snow scarce, northern U.S. has brown Christmas."  The author, John Flesher, doesn't fail to ask the obvious question--is there a reason for this?--but rather than bring up the sticky wicket of global climate change, he opts instead for "La Nina, the cooling of the equatorial Pacific Ocean that affects weather worldwide, has nudged the jet stream farther north. Air pressure over the northern Atlantic has steered storm systems away from the East Coast."

To be fair, climate science doesn't tell us a whole lot about snow--snowfalls may be much heavier due to the increased moisture content of the atmosphere, or they may be much lighter because they are replaced by rain, or the snow may melt because of warmer temperatures.  So that's a plausible reason for not bringing it up.

Still, the weather has clearly been odd--otherwise, there would be no reason for writing about it--and one factor has clearly been unusually warm temperatures.  Global warming "loads the [weather] dice," making warm spells more likely, as Mr. Bouchard noted, and it's my view that every feature story about unusual weather that dovetails with climate science should "connect the dots."

The New York Times does connect the dots sometimes--in its "Temperature Rising" series, which focuses explicitly on major issues relating to global warming, and, more interestingly, when its stories relate to politics.  Take, for example, this recent segment from a story titled "Climate Scientists Hampered in Study of 2011 Extremes," by Justin Gillis:
This year, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tried to push through a reorganization that would have provided better climate forecasts to businesses, citizens and local governments, Republicans in the House of Representatives blocked it. The idea had originated in the Bush administration, was strongly endorsed by an outside review panel and would have cost no extra money. But the House Republicans, many of whom reject the overwhelming scientific consensus about the causes of global warming, labeled the plan an attempt by the Obama administration to start a “propaganda” arm on climate.
Note the bolded passages, which provide the extra factual context a reader needs to make, yes, judgments about what is happening.  Let's look at the same paragraph without the bolded parts:

This year, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tried to push through a reorganization that would have provided better climate forecasts to businesses, citizens and local governments, Republicans in the House of Representatives blocked it, labeling the plan an attempt by the Obama administration to start a “propaganda” arm on climate.
The latter approach has far too frequently characterized the Times' approach to weather and climate coverage.  Congratulations to Mr. Gillis for "telling it like it is" on the news story of the century--the disruption of Earth's climate by human-caused emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

UPDATE: To get a sense of just how different climate reporting can be, see this example from today's edition of the Montreal Gazette: "Quebec on the verge of catastrophic climate change, expert [says]."

Related posts:

How the New York Times could cover global warming, Dec. 23, 2011
The New York Times and global warming (not): why?, Oct. 3, 2011

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Thanks, Al

The post I should have written for Thanksgiving:

I'm thankful, of course, for everyone who is active in trying to persuade recalcitrant and boneheaded governments around the world (including our own in Washington, D.C.) to get serious about slashing global warming pollution.  Bless you all, thank you all, and more power to your efforts, whatever (nonviolent) form they may take.  But I'd like to extend a special note of thanks to our former Vice President, Al Gore.

When you look across the spectrum of U.S. politicians on this issue, it's a pretty sorry sight.  Vice President Gore has done more--far more--than any other American political leader to draw our attention to this urgent global problem, and he has done it consistently, month after month, year after year.  Take a look on Twitter for @algore and you will find him today, still pushing out information about climate science and its implications.  In return, he has been belittled, defamed, mocked, and smeared.  The lackeys of the fossil fuels industry have talked about "making Al Gore angry" as if it were a serious policy objective, rather than juvenile taunting unworthy of anyone's serious attention.  Shame on them and those who pay them.

And thanks, Al.  Thanks for not being either bought off by the fossil fuels industries, like so many others, or cowed by their Tea Party dupes.  Thanks for continuing to tell us the inconvenient truth about the serious global danger we are courting with our current energy policy and what we need to do to avert it.  We are all in your debt.

How the New York Times could cover global warming

I've complained (hmmm, maybe "ranted" is the appropriate word) here previously about the New York Times and its "coverage" of global warming.

It's interesting to compare that coverage with the Times' coverage of Congress. The e-mail alert (from the Times) for the breaking story of the day on Saturday, December 17, reads, in pertinent part, as follows:

“Senate Votes to Extend Payroll Tax Cut for Two Months

“WASHINGTON — In the ultimate cap to a year of last-minute, half-loaf legislation, the Senate voted overwhelmingly on Saturday to extend a payroll tax cut for a two months, with the chamber’s leaders and the White House proclaiming victory, even as they pushed the issue of how to extend the tax cut and unemployment benefits into the new year. …

“The agreement — should it get through the House — mirrors a series of 11th-hour deals devised by the the 112th Congress that appear to solve an impending crisis, but simply push it forward

“A failure to even extend a modest tax break for 160 million Americans for a single year — something both sides would love as political feathers in their election-year caps — is particularly remarkable in a Congress charged with far more significant items.

“‘Today is an important day for our country,’ said Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, as he explained from the Senate floor Saturday why his chamber would be voting on a bill, conceived Friday in private between Senate leaders to extend the tax for only two months. ‘We are doing today exactly what the Founding Fathers thought we would do,’ and passage of the bills is ‘an accomplishment important for the American people.’

Notice that the reporting is very judgmental--I have bolded some of the pieces of the text that, while they are arguably accurate reporting, also appear to express the personal views of the reporter.  Certainly, they are not "straight reporting."  Also, the article positions the quote from Reid in such a way as to make him appear either openly cynical or stupid.

The NYT does this regularly with political news, so its reporters do know how to take a position, in a news story. The mystery is why it is so assiduous about writing news stories about global warming as neutrally (and even cluelessly) as possible. It has, for example, carried lengthy articles about the recent rash of wildfires in the western U.S. and on the record-breaking Texas drought of 2011 without mentioning global warming at all.  Its blog even reported on the most well-known skeptic politician, U.S. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), sending a self-congratulatory message to skeptics at the Cancun international climate conference--without any discussion of the climate science he belittles.

That said, some credit is due. On the same day as the story above, it carried a long story on methane that actually discusses climate science as if it were settled.  I hope it's the beginning of a sea change, but at this point, it's hard to be optimistic.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Update from the Terra Incognita of rain

"Terra Incognita" is my metaphorical phrase for describing the previously unknown weather (well, unknown at least in the weather records) that is now being brought to us, around the world, by global warming.  Here's a quick update from one part of that unknown land--the rainy one.

A few days ago, Joe Romm's excellent Climate Progress blog ran a post by Dr. Jeff Masters of Weather Underground ( about the new records for rainfall that have been set in the Northeastern U.S. this year.  Dr. Masters emphasized the fact that Philadelphia, which has one of the longest weather records (and therefore extremes that are very hard to top) had set a new record with its rainiest year since the start of rainfall record-keeping in 1820.  But some other numbers in his list of new 2011 records seem to me even more striking.   Here they are:

Williamsport, PA, rainfall records dating from 1895: broke old record by 7.1 inches (180 mm) (11.5%).
Cleveland, OH, records since 1855: broke old record by 8.51 inches (216 mm) (15.8%)
Harrisburg, PA, records since 1861: broke old record by 12.29 inches (312 mm) (20.5%).
Binghamton, NY, records since 1890: broke old record by 16.61 inches (422 mm) (33.7%)

In each case, we're talking about weather records dating back more than a century, and the old rainfall records are not just being surpassed, they're being obliterated.

The bottom line?  Global warming means new weather coming, to a place near you.  It may be hotter, or dryer, or wetter than ever before, but whichever it is, we're off the old weather charts and into new territory.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Upbeat moment: Kids for Climate Action

OK, maybe I will have another happy post sometime, but probably not for a while, so savor this one.  From the Canadian Press by way of the Winnipeg Free Press, we have this story: "Students to hold Christmas flash mobs, carol for climate change."  Good to see some young people finding a creative way to engage the person in the street on global warming, and singing and dancing while they do it.

If you'd like to see what this looks like (I know I did), see this video of one of last year's Kids for Climate Action flash mobs in a Vancouver food court.

Kids for Climate Action has a Facebook page, and the lyrics of their modified carols are available on their events page:  This year's carol was "Climate Change Sucks" to the tune of "Jingle Bell Rock."  Here's an excerpt:

"Climate change, climate change, climate change sucks
Our atmosphere heating, our glaciers receding
Extinction and pine beetle aren’t very fun
And the effects have just begun

"Climate change, climate change, climate change sucks
We pollute away while the poor countries pay
Hurricanes, drought, flooding, increased disease
Climate justice please

"What a bright time, it's the right time
For us to change our ways
It’s better
To work together
To save our Earth for future days"

Sweet.  Sort of.

Wake up, getting late, time to act

David Roberts of Grist, always worth reading, has three posts on global warming in the past few days (1, 2, 3).  All three are really calls to action--#1 concerns just how dire the findings of climate science are and how long we have slumbered, #2 the scale and urgency of what we need to do now, and #3 the error of hoping that moderate, reasonable, reassuring communications will get us where we need to go.

I, of course, endorse his view--what would you expect from a guy with a blog with titled It's Burning? I'm no scientist, but I've read a lot about climate science over the past 20-plus years, and very little of it has been reassuring.  Mostly, it's amounted to the slow piling up of a mountain of evidence agreeing with the basic conclusion that we're dumping heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at a scale that natural systems cannot handle, that the Earth is slowly but steadily warming as a result, and that the scale of the climate system is so large that inertia will guarantee continued warming long after we recognize the inevitable and cut back on the use of fossil fuels.

But I write with respect to #3.  Every once in a while I have a discussion about global warming with someone and I wind up thinking, or saying out loud, "But what if an unreasonable solution is required?  What if the situation is so grave that reasonableness becomes a fatal trap?"  No one ever has an answer--they just shake their heads.  Maybe we've been conditioned by the ending of the military draft, and its implication (hey, war is not such a big thing, just take it easy and someone else will do the fighting and dying)?  Are we so in love with a life of relative ease that we just don't have what it takes anymore to do what it takes?

Because, you know, it's really not that hard to become an activist on this issue. There are organizations out there like Citizens' Climate Lobby and 350 and Climate Reality Project that will keep you informed and take you by the hand and tell you what to say to whom and when to say it, or where to go and what to do, in order to have the most impact. Join them and support them now.  The simple truth is that with respect to the climate, we are facing a very dangerous situation, and it's getting worse every day.  It's getting late to stop global warming and serious disruption of the Earth's climate--maybe too late--but if you and I and thousands of others don't shuck off our laziness, our inhibitions, our fear, or whatever else is holding us back and act now ... we're guaranteeing that it's too late.

P.S. Bonus reading: in this new post The doctor and the life coach: a question for Andy Revkin, Roberts lays out the essential danger of feel-good communications about global warming. Recommended.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Dawn of the undead: Fake Twitter accounts return

Not too long ago, I wrote about the problem of someone apparently paying for climate science denier ads to be run by a system of fake Twitter accounts.  As you will see from the updates to that post, I thought the problem had been resolved, but it hasn't--they're baa-ack.  The ads disappeared for a few days after December 1, but then a new series of accounts popped up--first with egg avatars, then the aforementioned photos of young women. I've written repeatedly to Twitter Support to remind them (about once a week), but am getting no response.  So this is just for the record--the zombie accounts are still there, trying to eat the brains of people credulous enough to believe a BS quote about NASA scientists lying. See for yourself: just search for "NASA scientists" and you will find them.