Best Practices for Talking About Climate Change & Hurricanes

Hurricane Climate

In this season of never-ending storms, talking about climate change is becoming increasingly important. Here are the main points to consider:

  • Mention the role of climate change. Record storms are fueled by record-breaking ocean temperatures, rising seas and heavier rains bring floods, and climate change drives hurricanes in new directions.
  • Ask the right questions. Do ask: “How is climate change influencing events?” “Are warm waters amplifying the storm?” Don’t ask: “Did climate change cause this storm?”
  • Show key evidence. Three hottest years in a row. Storms are becoming more difficult to predict and growing more intense. “500-year” and “1000-year” events occurring more often. The National Climate Assessment project increasingly severe storms.

HOW TO COMMUNICATE CLEARLY AND AVOID PITFALLS

Include the role climate change had on the storm’s strength and damage

Every thorough story on a hurricane includes when and where it began. In our climate-changed world, messaging should also note how both Harvey and Irma intensified over above-average warm ocean waters. Global ocean temperatures were the warmest on record for the last two years. In the case of Irma, readers should know that unusually warm waters in the Atlantic are fueling the storm’s record-breaking and deadly wind-speeds. Irma maintained her wind speeds of more than 180 mph for 37 hours, longer than any storm on Earth on record. In the case of Harvey, the warmer atmosphere loaded the storm with extra moisture, adding to the deluge of rain that kept Houston underwater for days.

Explain what we know

Climate scientists are in broad agreement that many types of extreme weather are growing increasingly intense due to climate change. The debate lies in determining how much worse climate change makes these disasters, not whether climate change is having an impact, much less the reality of climate change itself. Explain what scientists are sure about–warming is amplifying the damage incurred by these storms–not what we have yet to find out, for example, whether warming is making storms more frequent.

Ask the right questions

Asking if climate change “causes” a storm won’t get you the right answers, because the question doesn’t reflect how the scientific community operates as an event unfolds. Peer-reviewed science takes time. Official attribution studies can often take months or years to be published, long after a storm has receded from the headlines.

But, what is possible is understanding the overarching climate change trends that influence extreme weather. Talking about climate change trends, and not about attribution for an specific event, enables scientists to speak more clearly about how climate change is affecting a storm. The question scientists can answer without months of study is not “did climate change cause this?” but rather, “how is climate change influencing events such as this one?”

Show the evidence

There is ample research on Atlantic hurricanes showing that rising seas are dramatically extending the reach of storm surge in coastal communities. The dramatic flooding in Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia during Hurricane Matthew in 2016 is just one example of this trend. Global warming has also increased rainfall during hurricanes; most of the damage in Houston was due to the intensity of Harvey’s rainfall. Global warming may be responsible for the increase in the intensity of North Atlantic hurricanes over the past few decades. Hurricane intensity and rainfall is projected to increase as the climate warms.

Highlight the staggering cost

There has been a major jump in weather and climate disasters that exceed $1 billion in damage across the US. Between 1980 and 2016, there were an average of 5.5 such weather events each year. That number has doubled to 10.6 per year in the last five years. Hurricane Harvey was America’s 10th billion-dollar disaster in 2017–and it’s only September.

Furthermore, the number of claims filed under the national flood insurance program is rising in parallel with extreme rainfall and flooding in the United States. Climate change was responsible for at least $2 billion and up to $14 billion of the hurricane losses in 2005.

Call out climate change denial for what it is

There is legitimate scientific debate, and then there are climate change deniers. The fossil fuel industry pays operatives to promote bad science and confuse the public. The myths of junk science are many, stubborn, and hard to erase, but we’ll try: Yes, greenhouse gas emissions are causing our climate to change. Yes, climate change is happening now, and it’s putting Americans in danger. Yes, storms really are costing us more money, and no, it’s not just because people are richer than they used to be. No, it’s not too soon to talk about climate change. Yes, muting or ignoring conversation of climate change serves the political interests of the fossil fuel industry.

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