Friday, January 30, 2009

Placing blame for heat waves

This headline appears in today's Globe and Mail:

Australian blames climate change for heat wave

Ugh. Southeastern Australia is in the midst of a punishing heat wave. Temperatures in Sydney and Melbourne peaking over 40 degrees Celsius for six straight days. Naturally, scientists, politicians and the media are drawing a link to climate change.

The "Australian" in question is their government's climate change minister. Before people trash her as an alarmist, who blames everything on climate change, read what she actually said. This is the quote from the original Reuters. piece:

Climate Change Minister Penny Wong said the heat wave, which started on Wednesday, was the sort of weather scientists had been warning about.

“Eleven of the hottest years in history have been in the last 12, and we also note, particularly in the southern part of Australia, we're seeing less rainfall,” Ms. Wong told reporters.

“All of this is consistent with climate change, and all of this is consistent with what scientists told us would happen.”

It is a reasonable statement. You cannot blame any one heatwave, one tropical storm, one coral bleaching episode, one weather event of any kind, or for that matter, the weather in any one year, on a long-term trend. Just as you cannot use one weather event or one year to disprove the existence of a long-term trend -- although statistically-challenged skeptics of climate change continue to try. But you can say that Australia is expected to experience more frequent and more severe heat waves like this one.

The flaw in climate reporting is often the headlines, not the actual reporting.


Anonymous said...

Climate reporting has no exclusive on bad headlines. Limited word counts always make it difficult to convey nuance, there is often a tendency to remove caveats, and quite often the author of the article does *not* get to choose the headline.

For example, see R4 in what to do about poor science reporting. It includes a funny-in-retrospect, horrible-at-the-time example where I did an interview with a (fine) Wall Street Journal reporter, who wrote an excellent article ... but the resulting headline lost my company 15% of it's market cap in about an hour. Fortunately, teh effect didn't last too many days.

I used to talk with the press fairly often, and I always held my breath to see what would happen.

Unknown said...

Great example. This is my point - we tend to rail against reporters, when the blame lies with the editors forced to summarize a complex subject in six words.

To be fair, scientists themselves struggle to compose appropriate titles for their journal articles!

Anonymous said...

Yes, but while scientists/authors struggle with editors on book titles, for serious scientific journals, they're allowed more words and more freedom.

Consider the current issue of Science, of which a quick perusal reveals many article titles like:

"Control of Graphene's Properties by Reversible Hydrogenation: Evidence for Graphane"

"A Human Telomerase Holoenzyme Protein Required for Cajal Body Localization and Telomere Synthesis"

I conjecture that such titles would rarely survive as newspaper headlines... :-)