Good Science Writing or Bad Press for Climate Change Scientists?

By Jesse Dykstra 22/12/2010 4

In a 20 December article from Associated Press (covered by from science writer Seth Borenstein, I get the impression that climate change is assumed to be behind the high disaster toll in 2010. Here is a link to the article, entitled: 

2010’s world gone wild: Quakes, floods, blizzards – this was the year the Earth struck back

Read it yourself – perhaps you already have. Decide for yourself whether the article represents good science writing. 

From my (admittedly) narrow perspective as a natural hazards scientist, I find statements like

“The high death toll has less to do with Mother Nature and more to do with mankind. The excessive amount of extreme weather that dominated 2010 is a classic sign of man-made global warming that climate scientists have long warned about”

to be confusing. I couldn’t agree more with the first sentence – our growing population is becoming more and more vulnerable to natural disasters, and that is why the trend is towards more, and increasingly severe disasters. But the second sentence doesn’t follow. The author seems to be implying that anthropogenic global warming is behind the increasing trend in natural disasters, due to an increase in “extreme weather”.

To the contrary, I believe that it is the increasing number and vulnerability of people living in areas that are naturally subject to hazards such as earthquakes and flooding that is behind the increase in natural disasters recently. I have discussed this very situation in previous blog posts, with respect to the major weather-related disasters in Pakistan and Columbia this year.

The Difference Between Weather and Climate

Once again the climate-vs-weather issue that confuses so many climate change skeptics and proponents alike rears its ugly head. Weather is simply a short-term manifestation of atmospheric conditions, while climate is how we expect the weather to behave  on average over many years. It simply doesn’t make sense to invoke a few extreme weather events as a harbinger of climate change. These extreme weather events may indeed be symptomatic of actual climate change, but only long term, scientifically tested trends in climate will tell the whole story. Dramatised, conclusion-without-consensus storytelling only serves to undermine the credibility of real, valid climate change science, which continues to build a stronger and stronger case for current climate change (ie. beyond natural climate variability), using many different climate proxies and records going back many thousands of years.

Any suggestion that the earth somehow has the ability to punish our species by inflicting more and more disasters upon us is misplaced. We must address the increasing vulnerability of our growing, increasingly urbanized populations to the hazardous natural processes that continue to operate as they always have, before we start to blame climate change for the increasing cost of natural disasters around the world. Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez illustrates the problem: by suggesting that western greed and capitalism has driven climate change, and that recent weather related disasters in South America are due to such climate change, he sidesteps the real issues. The  growing populations of countries like Venezuela and Columbia tend to develop low lying areas that are naturally subject to flooding and other weather-related hazards, because those are essentially the only places where people can live, and make a living off of the land. Deforestation of unstable hillsides, constraining of natural river systems and wetlands that attenuate flood waters, and poorly engineered or under designed flood protection measures all contribute to weather-related disasters around the world. In essence, more and more people are living in dangerous places, and that has nothing to do with climate change.

Borenstein notes that over 250,000 people were killed by natural disasters in 2010, the deadliest year since 1976. He also notes that more than twice as many people were killed by natural disasters in 2010 as were killed by terrorist activities – an interesting stat. However, it needs to be made clear that the vast majority of deaths from natural disasters in 2010 were a result of the Haiti earthquake, which killed over 220,000 people. Weather-related disasters such as flooding in Pakistan, and the heatwave in Russia accounted for a relatively small proportion of deaths due to natural disasters in 2010. In my view it is far more important to address the vulnerability of populations to natural hazards such as earthquakes because reducing those vulnerabilities could save many more lives in the future(as was so tragically illustrated in Haiti). Simply blaming climate change is not going to solve anything.

4 Responses to “Good Science Writing or Bad Press for Climate Change Scientists?”

  • Well stated, Jesse. It is unsettling that a science writer has chosen to be a propagandist rater than a truth teller. Now, what is your take on the NZClimate Coalition vs. NIWA on the NZ temp record? Seems like both sides are desperately trying to spin the Australian Bureau of Meteorology review report.

  • I disagree. Extreme events are a harbinger of CC WHEN they are more frequent and more extreme which seems to be the case over the last few years. Don’t forget that large amounts of additional heat energy have been trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere – mostly absorbed by the oceans – over the last 50+ years. That’s a fundamental change in the climate system – it would be incredible if there were no affects on weather ie extreme events.

    Obviously the impacts of natural disaster are the result of a combination of factors. I don’t think you really read Borentsein’s article because that is what he wrote:

    “Poor construction and development practices conspire to make earthquakes more deadly than they need be. More people live in poverty in vulnerable buildings in crowded cities. That means that when the ground shakes, the river breaches, or the tropical cyclone hits, more people die.”

  • @Stephen. Cheers for the comments. I have read the Borenstein article, more times than I care to admit. I made it pretty clear that recent extreme weather MAY indeed be an indication of climate change – it would be foolish to ignore these warning signs. But fair points, Borenstein did address the role of vulnerability in recent natural disasters. What gets me fuming is that the article seems to lead the reader to the conclusion that climate change is behind the large number of deaths last year. When the general public assumes that is the case, the tendency is to throw up our hands, saying “it’s climate change, there’s nothing we can do about it”. In fact, increasing human vulnerability to natural disasters is an issue that we can, and should be doing something about.