November 5th, 2012
So many people were desperate to scream out, “IT’S HERE!” “It” being the idea that we caused the hurricane or made it worse. But wasn’t anything learned from Katrina? “It” wasn’t here then (the 5 hurricanes of 2005 were followed by almost no hurricanes). “It” isn’t here now. The bottom line is that nature is extremely variable, making it difficult to pull a signal out of so much natural noise. However there is still that natural urge to say “it” is happening. This relates to what Andy Revkin labeled, “Whiplash Journalism” — the panicked response to the events of the moment. It’s a good time to keep that term in mind. And something else to keep in mind: Miami, 1926
WHIPLASH AVOIDER. In a world of frantic assertions, one man keeps his calm — NY Times blogger Andy Revkin.
MAYBE OR MAYBE NOT
In a maelstrom of panic last week, I found the voice of Andy Revkin to be a source of calm. He did a great job of hosting a detailed debate over whether Hurricane Sandy was caused and/or made more severe by what we’ve done to the atmosphere. In one of his best posts, he quoted Mayor Bloomberg who stated the situation clearly and accurately when he said:
“Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it may be — given the devastation it is wreaking — should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”
It’s the “may or may not” thing. I’m not saying that the +5 degree elevation of sea surface temperatures contributing to the strength of Sandy was irrelevant, but I am saying let’s be really certain we know the “credibility damage” of shouting out “It’s here!” before we do it again. Why?
never too soon
Do you recall what the left leaning members of the general public did in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005? They had a mass media panic attack that centered around a movie that was VERY hastily assembled (released before the next hurricane season) trying to make the case for global warming that “IT’S HERE!” (it was subtitled, “By far the most terrifying film you will ever see!”).
But guess what followed the year of 5 hurricanes. Not much. There were no more catastrophic years until now, 7 years later. The bar had been set high by the “it’s here” proclamation. During that time, the public’s concern about global warming sagged while the level of climate skepticism grew. The bottom line is that the events turned into pretty much of a “crying wolf” situation. (btw, I no longer mention the title of the movie because some enviros have gotten so sensitive they equate film criticism to climate skepticism)
why are you reading these?
WHIPLASH JOURNALISM AND THE LUXURY OF SEEKING THE TRUTH
Andy Revkin, in 2008, published an excellent article about (as the Columbia Journalism Review put it in an article that praised him), “the ways in which reporters’ tendency to bounce from one often-contradictory climate study to another confuses the public. ”
There are three aspects of Andy’s background that give him significant credibility in the climate discussion. The first is that he is a long timer — he’s been around this stuff for decades (he published a global warming book 20 years ago). As a result of so much experience, his mind is filled with shock absorbers. With every major development in the news, he’s thinking, “This seems similar to several past situations.”
Second, he doesn’t need attention (this is huge). He’s at the New York Times. By definition he automatically gets attention by being there. He’s not some upstart blogger who’s trying to “attract eyeballs” (which happens A LOT in the blogging world). He doesn’t need to. He has the luxury of being able to solely seek the truth.
Third, when you read the comments on his blogposts and listen to opinions of him in both the climate science and climate skeptic community, you hear a fairly even balance of dismissal from both ends of the spectrum. Climate skeptics call him a “warmist,” some climate science folks try to label him a climate skeptic. It cancels out and to me signifies someone genuinely searching for the truth. Which is rare.
thank you for doing so
WAIT TIL BISCAYNE ISLAND GETS WASHED OVER AGAIN (WHOA AND YIKES)
I have dealt with the frustration of natural variation myself when I was a marine ecologist. I remember a situation in Australia when people had photos of agricultural runoff killing individual corals on the Great Barrier Reef, but because the distribution of corals is naturally so variable, their transect data were unable to show an effect. This is very frustrating, but it’s the way it works in the real world. And speaking of natural variation …
In the late 80′s, when I was a postdoc at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Ft. Pierce, Florida, the Miami Herald ran a rather amazing feature article on the hurricane of 1926. It hurt my brain to read it. They were asking the reader to try and envision today what happened then, starting with the idea of a 10 foot deep storm surge that swept over the ENTIRE Biscayne Island. Today the island has over 12,000 residents. When that hurricane comes again, the devastation is going to be staggering. It will probably look like the Indonesian tsunami in places.
It happened before, it will happen again. It’s going to leave a gigantic scar on the American psyche. But even then, there may not be enough data to overcome natural variation, meaning it may still not yet be time to shout, “It’s here.”
DROWNED BISCAYNE – this is a map of the flooding from the 1926 hurricane at it’s worst point. Note the entirety of Biscayne Island on the right is submerged. Whoa.