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.
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.