Numerous media reports dealing with wildfires, with record-breaking heat, and with a possible connection to climate change capitalize on 2012 weather anomalies for a ‘teachable moment.’ And two articles in academic journals provide more context on the subject.

Some teachable moments last longer than others.

Like for a whole season, for instance, or even longer.

The spring and summer of 2012, both soon past tense, provide an apt example, at least insofar as North America is considered. Coming after an unusually mild winter — wondering why the pets are experiencing such nagging flea problems this summer? — the spring’s searing wildfires across much of the West by mid-summer had begun to share the limelight with record-high temperatures turning much of the nation’s corn crop to waste.

Reports in two journals — one linking specific weather events to climate change and the other exploring the impacts of local weather experiences on climate attitudes — add more context to the range of analyses.

“The facts speak loudly for themselves,” respected journalism academic and science writer Tom Yulsman, of the University of Colorado, wrote in Columbia Journalism Review in mid-July. “As of July 12, 76 active wildfires were burning across more than 2.1 million acres of the American West — an area nearly as large as sprawling Los Angeles County. And the heart of the fire season is still ahead of us.”

“The fires have predictably followed six months of paltry precipitation and near-record warmth in large parts of the region,” Yulsman wrote, pointing to “a death spiral of rapid melting” by March for Colorado’s snowpack.

Writing around that same time in the Omaha World-Herald, reporter Nancy Gaarder led her report — “So, Just How Bad is This Year’s Drought?“:  “The extraordinary drought that has exploded across the country shows no signs of abating. Instead, what began as a ‘flash’ drought — a quick flare-up of extremely dry conditions — has settled in and is intensifying.”

Gaarder wrote of “a fresh round of analyses by the nation’s leading drought and weather forecasting agencies” which she said collectively “fleshed out a discouraging picture of what has become the most widespread U.S. drought since 1956.”

Reports of local, city, and state record-high daily temperatures became old-hat, yesterday’s news, as each day, each week, and each month overtook previous records set just shortly earlier.

According to Yulsman, reporters and commentators “chose to emphasize different parts” of the forest management/drought/climate change/growing population equation in their coverage.

“Some examined decades of forest management policies that have left many forest ecosystems overgrown and fully fueled for intense fires,” he wrote. “Others examined the climatic factors that lit the fuse.”

“Some missed the mark in their coverage, with over-simplification and lack of appropriate skepticism,” Yulsman wrote, while “many others added important information to public discourse on this increasingly critical issue.”

Reviewing Temperature Records Newly Broken

Climate Central science writer Andrew Freedman pulled together a number of coverage threads in a July 30 blog posting “Extreme Heat Continues to Plague South Central States.” He noted in that piece that Tulsa, Oklahoma, had so far that month had 16 100-degree days and that through July 29 its average high was running 5.3 degrees above average. Tulsa experienced one record overnight low, reaching down only to 88 degrees F and breaking its previous overnight lows of 87 degrees in 2011 and 1980.

Looking back over the first seven months of the year, Freedman reported that the U.S. had recorded its warmest January-to-June period on record, with its warmest March, third-warmest April, and second-warmest May.

“This marks the first time that all three months during the spring season ranked among the 10 warmest, since recordings began in 1895,” Freedman wrote. He added that daily record-high temperatures generally had been outpacing daily record lows by two-to-one.

“This year-to-date, record-daily highs have been outpacing record-daily lows by a ratio closer to nine-to-one.” “When you look at all warm temperature records, including overnight low temperatures compared to all cold temperature records, the ratio is closer to seven-to-one,” he reported.

Extensive Network News Coverage

Coverage of a weather/climate connection wasn’t limited to the print media, of course. Throughout much of the summer, it wasn’t unusual to find the prime-time “flagship” network news broadcasts of ABC, CBS, and NBC all leading their broadcasts with either wildfire or scorching heat stories. NBC’s environmental affairs coordinator Anne Thompson must have garnered as much airtime as anyone, but ABC at one point gave the lead story on its evening coverage to its “Good Morning America” weather editor, Sam Champion. Responding to a question from anchor Diane Sawyer after his report on the day’s scorching temperatures, Champion opined freely that he personally concludes that manmade emissions from fossil fuel combustion — specifically CO2 — lie at the heart of the warming weather pattern. It’s time to reduce those emissions, he told Sawyer.

On CBS, meanwhile, a leading scientist with The Nature Conservancy, M. Sanjayan, took over as the networks’ science and environmental commentator, seemingly violating the proverbial “iron wall” such news organizations traditionally have maintained between straight news reporting and advocacy.

Sanjayan had some insightful points to make in a summer commentary on wildfires and climate change, but Columbia Journalism Review‘s Curtis Brainard headlined a late-August report “CBS Goofs Up the Green Beat” on a second story. Brainard faulted the network for “allowing him [Sanjayan] to interview a fire ecologist from The Nature Conservancy without mentioning that the contributor is a lead scientist at the very same group.”

Labeling Sanjayan’s report “basically fine,” Brainard wrote that “the lack of disclosure is a serious problem.”

“Not only must the network mention Sanjayan’s affiliation with The Nature Conservancy in every report,” Brainard wrote, “but he should also avoid interviewing his colleagues there whenever possible — which is almost always.”

That breach notwithstanding, however, much of the mainstream network and cable coverage of the weather/wildfire/possible climate connection appeared generally responsible and more or less in keeping with the state of scientific understanding, complete with appropriate qualifications and references to uncertainty. There clearly were instances of over-playing and of under-playing the possible climate connections, and one activist media watchdog group, Media Matters, was particularly critical of what it characterized as “the missing climate context” in April-June coverage by national newspapers and major network and cable companies. “The major television and print outlets largely ignored climate change in their coverage of wildfires in Colorado, New Mexico, and other western states,” the interest group said in a July 3 analysis. All together, the group reported, only 3 percent of the reports on wildfires in the West mentioned climate change — 1.6 percent of television segments and 6 percent of text articles.”

Researchers Link Local Weather to Climate Attitudes

In the academic literature, researchers Patrick J. Egan and Megan Mullin, of New York University and Temple University respectively, wrote this summer that “For each 3.1 degree Fahrenheit that local temperatures in the past week have risen above normal, Americans become one percentage point more likely to agree that there is ‘solid evidence’ that the Earth is getting warmer.” They wrote that their research suggests “the size of the effect is substantial” but “short-lived” and therefore “does not induce long-term attitude change.” They wrote in The Journal of Politics in July that the effects of local weather on attitudes toward climate change are “most pronounced among the least educated.”

“The effect of weather on beliefs is significant and substantively large, even more so after longer periods of unusually hot or cold weather,” they wrote, even though “without a doubt, short-term weather variation provides little information about broad climatic trends.” They wrote that individuals routinely “draw inferences about society’s problems from their personal experiences [and] generally put too much weight on those personal experiences in forming their beliefs about the state of the world …. We find evidence of memory-based processing in which short-term fluctuations in the weather affect attitudes about global warming.”

Scientist Hansen’s ‘Loaded Climate Dice’ Analysis

In a paper published August 6 in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” — “Perceptions of Climate Change” — NASA climate scientist James Hansen and two co-authors , wrote that “Early public recognition of climate change is critical.”

Researchers for decades have thought that “by the early 21st century, the informed public should be able to recognize that the frequency of unusually warm seasons had increased,” they wrote, because the ‘climate dice,’ describing the probability of unusually warm or unusually cool seasons, would be sufficiently loaded (biased) as to be discernible to the public.”

Emphasizing that “summer temperature anomalies are changing,” Hansen acknowledged that “we were motivated in this research by an objective to expose effects of human-made global warming as soon as possible.” He added that “we use an empirical approach that does not require knowledge of the causes of observed climate change” and “avoid any use of global climate models, instead dealing only with real world data.”

“The climate dice are now loaded to a degree that a perceptive person old enough to remember the climate of 1951-1980 should recognize the existence of climate change, especially in summer,” Hansen and his colleagues wrote. “We can say with a high degree of confidence that events such as the extreme summer heat in the Moscow region in 2010 and Texas in 2011 were a consequence of global warming,” they concluded. “Today’s extreme anomalies occur as a result of simultaneous contributions of specific weather patterns and global warming,” they wrote.

With fall school semesters underway and prime-time vacation rentals giving way to off-season “bargains,” what lessons from the spring and summer will media carry into the coming fall? Will the first warmer-than-“normal” spell herald “told-ha-so” skeptical news coverage? Will warmer days in some coming winter months (in some locations or many) erase spring and summer lessons hard-learned?

The “teachable moments” of spring and summer 2012 for sure will be followed by teachable moments yet to come. What remains unclear is how well the media’s past lessons-learned will influence their future coverage. To be continued.

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