In Retrospect

It was a good day for environment and sustainability articles- retrospectives, predictions, musings, rantings- but I’ll limit myself to two today. The first, is a NYT article by John Tierney on how the media exaggerates weather trends, and predictions on how 2008 will be even worse. The second is Wired/AP retrospective on the high incidence of abnormal weather events in 2007.

Tierney laments the breathless media coverage of global warming, and warns that activists, scientists, and journalists are starting an “availability cascade” of scary information:

The availability cascade is a self-perpetuating process: the more attention a danger gets, the more worried people become, leading to more news coverage and more fear…Once a cascade is under way, it becomes tough to sort out risks because experts become reluctant to dispute the popular wisdom, and are ignored if they do.

I appreciate his fine point on the dangers of rabid media confidence, but I think Mr. Tierney overlooks a few things. Sure, it’d be nice if the “Today Show” or wherever else it is most of the public gets their global warming news from were more nuanced, but they don’t have enough time for “facts” in between those segments on fad diets and the guy who got his hand stuck in a thresher. People who are at all curious have plenty of non-inane media options, and people who aren’t, well. We’ve led the horse to water, it’s just fad diets are much more entertaining than the poorly groomed science types. The public has demonstrated time and again that you can’t force them to be well and wisely informed. Also, most of the global warming movement itself disputes the popular wisdom- or the popular wisdom of 12 months ago. This is a new and rapidly evolving body of knowledge, and it gets corrected every week. We don’t need to worry about scientific work on the topic getting buried quite yet (unless the Bush administration gets hold of it, budum- tsssh!).

Perhaps most importantly, I take issue with Tierney’s characterization of media reports on weird weather as basically groundless- fear-mongering for the sake of scaring some caring into the folks at home. Here’s where the AP report comes in- the weather actually was a whole bunch weirder in 2007. Weirder everywhere. Weirder by big margins. Things got much much hotter, colder, wetter, drier- very often- more so than they have before in recorded history. The report lacks a few comparative numbers, but they got their information from this WMO report that’s more elucidating. Maybe, Mr. Tierney, the media thinks the weather is weird, because it is weird. Changes in the climate are making changes in normal weather patterns, and that’s news, not hype.

Tierney writes an interesting, informative science blog for the NYT, so I was surprised at some of the misunderstandings in his article. For instance, he asserts that

The most charitable excuse for this bias in weather divination is that the entrepreneurs are trying to offset another bias. The planet has indeed gotten warmer, and it is projected to keep warming because of greenhouse emissions, but this process is too slow to make much impact on the public.

Yes, the planet has gotten warmer, which is changing global weather patterns, which is directly impacting the public every day, and that’s what the media reports on, hmm?

So yes, beware the fear-mongers and rail-roaders, but also beware their castigators.

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