The cycle of climate news and extreme weather events has been so fast recently; it has been almost impossible to understand the scale of all the events simultaneously. Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, the fires in the Pacific Northwest—and this is just North America and the Caribbean. So many people and so much chaos; our collective safety, health, and stability are so obviously connected to extreme weather events and climate change. However, even with on-the-ground climate impacts and our infrastructural vulnerability so clear, it is hard to hold the scale of the problem in your mind.
Lots and lots (so many) of think pieces about hurricane attribution have been broadcast in media spaces in the last two week. Jesus, we are swimming in coverage about hurricanes and their links to climate change. I think this coverage largely does a disservice to public Earth science education, because it presents the content within a vacuum. Can we all just take a step back and think about the other components of the Earth system that are connected to climate change too, lest we misunderstand the relative context for this perceived controversy? The severity and size of tropical storms are connected to climate change. And so are: the circulation of the global ocean, the distribution and seasonality of sea ice, the carbon chemistry of the global ocean, the oxygenation of the deep sea, the distribution of oceanic nutrients, the heat storage within the deep sea, the rise of global sea level, the inundation of saltwater into shallow coastal environments, the reduction and collapse of polar and subpolar ecosystems, the loss of continental ice on mountain glaciers, the destabilization of boreal forest permafrost, the expansion of arid mid-latitude environments, the disruption to patterns of terrestrial ecosystem seasonality, and the intensification of continental heat waves. An on, and on, and on.
What’s more, so much of the coverage revolved around the two-dimensional regurgitation of “did climate change cause this hurricane?” To this question, I say "No thank you." As Chris Mooney articulated in his piece in Vox, the question is fundamentally malformed. Climate change is a state-shift in Earth systems, and so when evaluating extreme weather events, it is the context but not necessarily the causal agent. And—news flash—a background context of rapid planetary warming is, in the words of former Vice President Joe Biden, a big fucking deal.
We need to poke a hole in this toxic narrative and news cycle around climate attribution. When I say attribution, what I am referring to are the ongoing arguments of attributing specific weather events to climate change: Was Hurricane Harvey caused by climate change? Was the low snow year of 2015, up and down the Cascadian mountains, caused by climate change? These questions—individually—are interesting and important to answer. But the science of Earth system change is not altered by the relative statistical significance of our attribution certainty. Far from it. What’s more, this framing of attribution uncertainty is continually used to support climate action obstruction and denialist voices in our culture. When you hear pandering equivocation about climate and weather events, alarm bells should start ringing in your head. This news cycle is absolutely toxic and we together need to get our broad cultural conversation off this hamster wheel.
One closing point: When we use uncertainty around attributing individual weather events to climate change to call for "more data" or “better climate science" (think of Cliff Mass) we are driving a wedge between public health and public safety. We mislead the public because the message we send is: We don’t know what’s happening. This simply isn’t true; we do know what is happening. However, in some cases, we lack high-quality time series data to statistically detect the signal of climate from the noise of weather.