Tag Archives: David Roberts

Hurricane Sandy and the Climate Hens

Image courtesy of NASA, used under Creative Commons

Hurricane Sandy is one for the record books in a number of senses, and as New York and the world struggle to grapple with its enormity, some discussion has turned to climate change. A topic that has been damningly absent from discussion in the U.S. Presidential election.

It is inevitable that when anyone anywhere tries to talk about climate change in relation to things in the here and now rather than some murky, distant future, a particular group descends to cluck their tongues and admonish everyone that climate change can’t be tied to any individual event (a proposition that is not true, and grows increasingly less defensible as the field of fractional attribution matures). This group includes many who also fall into the camp of those who style themselves as non-partisans or above the “tribal” nature of climate debates. The parallels with Jay Rosen’s larger media critique of the View from Nowhere have been noted by Michael Tobis among others.

Dave Roberts has a thoughtful piece about this phenomenon. He refers to this group as climate “scolds” in contrast to climate hawks (and yes, I do have my own problems with the latter moniker). And while I do think that “scold” captures a lot of the flavor of the group Roberts is describing, I think the hawk vs. “___” setup favors a different term for the group: climate hens.

Image courtesy of Flickr user “Ann Blair”, used under Creative Commons

Climate hens by and large acknowledge the human perturbation of the climate system. But they are very, very hesitant to highlight (or are even downright resistant to) the idea that humans are shaping the present climate in ways that are affecting the public now. This may be because it doesn’t jibe with what they learned about climate years ago. It may be because they view erring on the side of making climate change seem more serious than it is to be as bad or worse than denying that it’s a problem. It may be because they don’t really understand climate science very well- Eric Berger and Roger Pielke Jr., for instance, are two climate hens that have displayed a remarkable ignorance about basic aspects of climate science pertaining to natural variability in a warming world. (Pielke Jr. is also infamous for playing bait and switch by turning conversations about human contribution to extreme events into discussions about an economic signal in normalized disaster losses.) Whatever the reason, climate hens are just plain uncomfortable with people attempting to tie extreme events to our increasing influence on the planet’s climate.

Roberts points out, correctly and convincingly, that the climate hens are clucking about a problem that doesn’t really exist- at least not the one that they’re ostensibly worried about. When the general public sees something like the record US heat, the summer drought, or a hurricane like Sandy, and they start asking about global warming, they don’t really want a belabored lecture on fractional attribution or paleoclimatic precedents that the climate hens think should determine the answer. What the public is looking for is some way to connect this thing- that scientists are telling them is real and a real problem- to their own experiences of the world. That’s what we humans do. Climate hens are, by mistake or by design, frustrating one of the best avenues of facilitating public recognition of climate change as a problem they need to take seriously. Roberts frames it this way:

That’s the key missing ingredient on climate change: not a technical understanding of stochastic modeling, forensic attribution, and degrees of probability, but a visceral, more-than-intellectual sense of what climate change means. Most people simply lack a social and ethical context for it, so they end up jamming it into other, more familiar contexts (“big government,” “environmental problem,” “liberal special interest group”).

A storm like Sandy provides an opportunity for those who understand climate change to help construct that context. It provides a set of experiences — a set of images, sounds, smells, feelings, experiences — that can inscribe climate change with the cultural resonance it lacks. That’s what persuades and motivates people: not the clinical language of science, but experiences and emotions and associations. Of course communicating scientific facts is important too, but it’s not the primary need, nor the standard by which other communications should be judged. What scolds often do is interpret the language of emotion and association through the filter of science. That’s neither helpful nor admirable.

And this perspective has supporters amongst those studying climate communication. Elke Weber (2010) makes this point:

Behavioral research over the past 30 years strongly suggests that attention-catching and emotionally engaging informational interventions may be required to engender the public concern necessary for individual or collective action in response to climate change… To the extent that time-delayed consequences of our actions do not attract the attention or generate the concern ex-ante that they would seem to warrant ex-post, behavioral research provides some corrective actions. The concretization of future events and moving them closer in time and space seem to hold promise as interventions that will raise visceral concern.

The science of tropical cyclogenesis in a warming world is undoubtedly complex and uncertain- a point I’ve been making for years. But when the public starts asking questions about climate after an event like Hurricane Sandy, they aren’t looking for navel-gazing about ensembles of modeling runs, wind shear, and overwash sediment coring. They are asking for a way to connect something they keep hearing they are supposed to care about to things they already do. The proper response to such questions is not, as the climate hens would have it, to shut them down and turn them away. And it should go without saying that nor is it a reason to overstate the connections between our increasingly heavy influence on the climate and extreme events like Hurricane Sandy. Rather, the appropriate response is to treat the questions for what they are: an invitation to talk about climate change in a way that is meaningful to a curious but decidedly lay public. Climate change means sea levels rising, it means storm surge increases, it means heavier precipitation events (Schaeffer et al., 2012; Sriver et al., 2012; Shepard et al., 2012; Min et al., 2011). If Hurricane Sandy makes these threats more concrete, if it moves them closer in time and space, if- in Roberts’ words- it provides “a set of images, sounds, smells, feelings, experiences”, we should absolutely be talking about it. And perhaps something good will come of this disaster. Clucking from the climate hens be damned.


  • Min, S.-K., X. Zhang, F. W. Zwiers, and G. C. Hegerl (2011), Human contribution to more-intense precipitation extremes, Nature, 470(7334), 378–381, doi:10.1038/nature09763.
  • Schaeffer, M., W. Hare, S. Rahmstorf, and M. Vermeer (2012), Long-term sea-level rise implied by 1.5 °C and 2 °C warming levels, Nature Climate Change, doi:10.1038/nclimate1584.
  • Shepard, C., V. Agostini, B. Gilmer, T. Allen, J. Stone, W. Brooks, and M. Beck (2012), Assessing future risk: quantifying the effects of sea level rise on storm surge risk for the southern shores of Long Island, New York, Natural Hazards, 60(2), 727–745, doi:10.1007/s11069-011-0046-8.
  • Sriver, R., N. Urban, R. Olson, and K. Keller (2012), Toward a physically plausible upper bound of sea-level rise projections, Climatic Change, 1–10, doi:10.1007/s10584-012-0610-6.
  • Weber, E. U. (2010), What shapes perceptions of climate change?, Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 1(3), 332–342, doi:10.1002/wcc.41.

On the James Fallows Atlantic coal article

Image courtesy of Flickr user ralphrepo

[Responding to Keith Kloor's post about this James Fallows piece on coal and our global energy future and Dave Roberts's criticisms]

Roberts made some good and bad points. I think that Roberts rightly objected to Fallows conflating politico-economic “realities” (i.e. status quo) with technological ones.

I agree that coal isn’t going anywhere any time soon. But I don’t believe that Fallows has made the case that it is technologically impossible to meet global energy needs without it.

He writes that as-of-yet-unrealized cleaner coal is “the only way to meet the world’s energy needs, and to arrest climate change before it produces irreversible cataclysm” and “there is no plausible other way [than coal] to meet what will be, absent an economic or social cataclysm, the world’s unavoidable energy demands. ”

But he does basically nothing to back this up. Yes, the current infrastructure is heavily tilted towards coal dependence. That’s not alone sufficient to support the claims that he’s making (which I acknowledge from the outset may in fact turn out to be true).

If coal is literally the only way forward, Fallows should have done a better job demonstrating this rather than asserting it. I realize that this might be beyond his expertise, but that’s no reason to let the assertions pass unchallenged. I didn’t see a single line dedicated to IFR nukes, for example. I didn’t see a word about solar thermal.

Being resigned to something because changing is perceived to be hard is not the same as saying that an alternative is literally impossible. Fallows has made a case for the former but in no way has done so for the latter.

Blog Action Day 2009 – Climate Change

Events seem to be conspiring against me getting a proper post out today, but I haven’t given up hope just yet. In the mean time, I’ll redirect interested parties to David Roberts’s welcome Seven reasons for optimism about the Senate climate Bill, Skeptical Science’s comprehensive Empirical evidence that humans are causing global warming, and the helpful (and new to me) Responses to Questions & Objections on Climate Change by economist Brett Paris.

Evolution of a denier talking point, “OMB memo” edition

David Roberts has a first rate post on the right wing/industry ginned up “controversy” regarding the EPA’s endangerment finding on GHGs. 

At the time of the finding, I remarked upon how unabashedly slanted the Journal’s coverage was towards industry interests- especially given that the reporter, Ian Talley, was well-aware of the Bush administration’s EPA internal study finding that regulation would have economic benefits to the tune of $2 trillion.

Well what do you know? The same reporter, Talley, just so happened to be the source of the OMB memo nontroversy:

… Dow Jones reporter Ian Talley (known in green circles for being a frequent conduit for conservative talking points on energy) discovers the memo and writes a story on it (sub. rqd., or read a different version Talley collaborated on for a Wall Street Journal blog).

Perhaps Talley just happened to be perusing the EPA’s horribly designed and nigh-unusable online docketand stumbled across the memo, on the very day of the first congressional hearing to consider the nomination of Cass Sunstein to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at OMB. Perhaps it was coincidence that the story appeared just as OMB was in the news and Sunstein was facing questions.

Then again, perhaps pigs fly out of my butt. Far more likely,  a dirty energy lobbying firm—I’m looking at you, Bracewell-Giuliani—tipped Talley off to the memo…

…So the Associated Press does a story on it, as does ABC’s Jake Tapper, along with NPR, the New York Times,  any number of blogs, etc. Suddenly, it’s everywhere: the “OMB memo” reveals that EPA regs will destroy the economy (and eat babies)!

Roberts points out correctly that this is a clear example of the media failing miserably in its supposed role of informing the public. I think he lets Talley off far too easy, however.

I could call what Talley is doing a lot of things (most of which I wouldn’t want my mother to hear me say), but it sure as hell isn’t journalism.

[UPDATE: And of course, while the rest of the world has wised up to the actual "merit" of the memo, the brain trust over at Watts Up With That are still engaged in a veritable orgy of raving, spittle-flecked paranoia and conspiracy theory.]