# Relationship between natural disaster and global warming, in the media

Sorry in advance if this is too broad a question. Feel free to let me know if it is off-topic.

I don't know more than the next person around about climate change, but I am really not a climato-skeptic myself. Yet, I feel uneasy about the way the media reports about the relationship between natural disaster and climate change, and I am looking for an unbiased assessment of these reports.

At least in what some would describe as “mainstream” media, my impression is that the following pattern emerges:

• When a natural disaster or nasty weather seems "intuitively" relatable to global warming (e.g., hurricanes, floods, etc., which a lay person like myself could believe would become more common with global warming), journalists go out of their way to find an expert who will tell them "yes, this is going to be more likely to happen as the planet warms up" and then headline things like "Flooding in Paris Maybe Due To Climate Change", to only cite the latest ( https://www.cbsnews.com/live/video/20180127140626-flooding-in-paris-maybe-due-to-climate-change/?ftag=CNM15cf32c).
• On the other hand, when a natural disaster or nasty weather seems to "intuitively" contradict global warming (e.g., snowstorms, cold-wave, etc., which a lay person like myself has a harder time understanding how the phenomenon would become more common with global warming), journalists go out of their way to find an expert who will tell them "this really is consistent with global warming and does not debunk the predictions of climate models at all" and then headline things like "Why the winter cold snap doesn’t disprove climate change” to only cite the latest (this is the title under which an article once appeared on CBS, before the title seem to have changed to https://www.cbsnews.com/news/adam-sobel-president-trump-global-warming-tweet-climate-change/).

I am not interested in these two examples per se. In particular, I am not claiming these specific reports are biased (or unbiased for that matter, I am simply not qualified to make that call).

Rather, my question is:

• On average, is the media doing a fair and balanced job as an educator of under-informed people (like myself) on that topic?
• Are they providing an even and science-based account of the relationship between natural disaster and global warming, honestly explaining how global warming is a complex phenomenon which may have surprisingly different --- and sometimes maybe “counter-intuitive” for lay people --- impacts here and there (including cooling and increased likelihood of sever weather in some areas)?
• Or are they inflating reports “in favor of” action against climate change (e.g., reports that natural disasters will be more frequent with climate change, and that some “counter-intuitive” event do not disprove climate change), while maybe minimizing other reports of situations in which climate change could impact some areas in ways that some would view as “positive”?
• Following useful comments: if "averaging" makes the question too hard to answer, which media does a good job, and which doesn't?
• Any empirical work done on that question? Did anyone try to text-mine information websites and assess biases (compared to the best scientific evidence) in the media’s presentation of the relationship between natural disaster and global warming?
• On average, is the media doing a fair and balanced job as an educator of under-informed people (like myself) on that topic? This really depends on which media you listen to. – bon Jan 27 '18 at 22:32
• politics politics politics. It is such a politically driven topic that both the climate change deniers and the climate change extremists do their part to make sure climate change is mentioned in weather related news. The reality is that no single event can be completely attributed to climate change. That being said, your question is almost impossible to answer because you are looking for a generalized average of all media. If you narrow down your focus to specific media outlets or events, you would have a better chance at getting a good answer. – farrenthorpe Jan 27 '18 at 23:09
• – farrenthorpe Jan 27 '18 at 23:20
• @farrenthorpe - Cliff Mass is not a particularly good reference. He's a meteorologist, not a climatologist, and those two branches of atmospheric science have been at loggerheads for a long time. – David Hammen Jan 28 '18 at 1:13
• You need to understand that the media, in general, is prone to exaggeration - otherwise it's not a good story. So what seems like (from my memories of growing up there) as absolutely normal winter weather is exaggerated into named storms, "bomb cyclones", and so on. The US media is also very east coast centric, as witness hundreds of stories about a bit of chilly weather in the east, and virtually nothing about the unseasonable warmth in the west. – jamesqf Jan 28 '18 at 21:15

First thing first: It is very hard, if not impossible, to attribute a single anomalous weather event to climate change. The weather exhibits a huge amount of natural variation.

The recent spate of cold weather that recently has hit the eastern part of North America is consistent with climate change and has even predicted to be a consequence of climate change. However, this spate of cold weather is also completely consistent with natural variations in the weather. As noted above, it's very hard to attribute a single weather anomaly to climate change. Winter weather is, by its nature, extremely variable.

It's also important to remember that this cold weather is a local event. Europe and Asia have been quite balmy this winter. Do not be surprised if December and January turn out to be considerably warmer than historical values when averaged over the entered planet. And even if it isn't, that does not falsify climate change. Climate change is about what happens after removing short term variations ("years" is short term) from the equation.

Note that I have been consistently using the term climate change rather than global warming. It's not that global warming is an incorrect term. People mistakenly take global warming to mean that every single day will be warmer than it was a year ago, everywhere on the planet. The science does not say this. As noted above, the recent spate of cold weather that has plagued and continues to plague eastern North America is completely consistent with and has been predicted by climate change (or global warming, if you will). But it's also consistent with natural variations.

That said, at least one event during the last year most likely was amplified by climate change, and that would be the huge amount of water dumped on southeast Texas by Hurricane Harvey. Tropical cyclones (e.g. hurricanes) and even very strong ones, are natural occurrences. Climate change does not predict that we will get more tropical cyclones. It does however predict that they will get more severe as the Earth warms up, on average. The huge amounts of water dumped by Harvey are consistent with and predicted by climate change, but not so much consistent with natural variations. While Harvey itself wasn't caused by climate change, a sizable portion of the 52 inches of the rain that it dumped most likely was a result of climate change.

Update, since I didn't directly address the questions raised

One reason I didn't address those questions is because the original post has too many questions (Martin: Please read up on how to write a good stackexchange question.) I'll focus on a couple of them.

On average, is the media doing a fair and balanced job as an educator of under-informed people (like myself) on that topic?

The first of the cited reports in the question has the teaser headline "Flooding in Paris Maybe Due To Climate Change" -- but the link does not discuss that at all. The news report merely covers the fact that Paris is currently flooding. (Perhaps a once longer version did cover a potential link to climate change.) This is a disservice because a potential link between flooding in Paris and climate change does exist. In particular, climate change has roughly doubled the probability of severe flooding events in Paris.

The second cited article is much better. It does not attribute the late December / early January cold snap in the US to climate change. It merely states facts. One fact is that many people (including the president of the US) see a cold snap as falsifying climate change. Another fact is that this is not the case. Climate change, aka global warming, does not say that winter will vanish. (Okay, some alarmists do say that. You need to ignore them, along with the deniers.) The natural variations in winter weather in temperate climates is huge. Climate change has not overcome these huge swings. We will continue to see cold snaps.

Are they providing an even and science-based account of the relationship between natural disaster and global warming, honestly explaining how global warming is a complex phenomenon which may have surprisingly different --- and sometimes maybe “counter-intuitive” for lay people --- impacts here and there (including cooling and increased likelihood of sever weather in some areas)?

This depends very much on where one gets ones news on climate change issues. Fox News? The odds are against it. According to one study, 72% of Fox News's reporting on climate change was inaccurate or downright false, with the inaccuracies veering toward denialism. This same study found MSNBC to do a much better job, with only 8% of its reporting on climate change being inaccurate or downright false (with the inaccuracies here being mostly overly alarmist).

That said, an 8% error rate is nothing to write home about, and the superficial nature of the reporting is even less to write home about. The news media is not where you should go if you want good reporting on climate change, or on science and technology in general. I have a rather low regard for news media journalism regarding science and technology. The reporting is rather awful. Keep in mind: Journalists in general avoided STEM classes from the ninth grade and up, and when they couldn't, they took classes like Physics for Poets.

• Wasn't Harvey in your neck of the woods? Here's hoping you and yours came through OK! – Floris Jan 28 '18 at 13:35
• @Floris - Very definitely in my neck of the woods. The National Weather Service has an official rain gauge less than a half a mile from my house. That rain gauge registered over 48" of rainfall during Harvey. Harvey's rainwaters, plus a good amount of yech from a couple of overtopped upstream sewage plants became an uninvited and very unwelcome guest in our house. We're hoping to be able to move back in in about a month. – David Hammen Jan 28 '18 at 13:51
• That sounds awful. Hope things will get back to normal for you! – Floris Jan 28 '18 at 18:29
• As an aside, December 2017 was the third warmest December on record. Another way to look at it: December 2017 was the warmest December on record amongst those Decembers that were not subject to an El Nino event. The cold snap at the end of December 2017 in a tiny portion of the world did not show that climate change is not happening. – David Hammen Jan 28 '18 at 18:52
• @Floris - On the plus side, we will have our dream house when it's all over. We were among the 10-20% minority who kept paying for flood insurance after having paid off the mortgage, and we had already set aside (but had not spent) a good chunk of change for remodeling. – David Hammen Jan 28 '18 at 18:58

a warming planet makes storms worse in two ways. The most straightforward comes when you realize storms are driven by differences in temprature and pressure between different parts of the atmosphere, climate change does not worm all parts of the atmosphere equally leading to greater variability in temprature, by warming the ocean this difference becomes even more extreme making the storm itself more powerful. Now to be fair there may be counter forces in wind shear but this is even harder to predict and would still not stop the worst storms, so we may end up with fewer storms overall but with the ones we do have being far worse. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/327/5964/454.full?ijkey=PFX.MzpFJDznM&keytype=ref&siteid=sci

Warmer air and water also increase evaporation giving the storms more precipitation to throw around, this is also how it makes snow storms worse, there is more moisture available. Another big effect is rising sea level It is easy to see how this makes storm flooding worse, if the water level is higher it takes less of a rise to get flooding and the same amount of rise results in worse flooding. http://www.nature.com/news/2008/080903/full/news.2008.1079.html