Can Scientists and Journalists Work Together to Improve Coverage of the Hurricane-Global Warming Controversy?
Journalists assigned to cover the April 25, 2006, debate over hurricanes and global warming in Monterey, California, may have been justifiably confused. The panel – part of the American Meteorological Society’s twenty-seventh meeting on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology – pitted two distinguished scientists convinced that global climate change has already intensified the average hurricane against two other distinguished scientists who question the reliability of the data used to draw this conclusion. Chris Landsea of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a skeptic of any strong link between hurricane strength and climate change, memorably captured the state of scientific uncertainty when he said, “Everyone involved in this panel discussion is searching for the truth, and I want to compliment everyone for doing that.” He continued: “I get along personally with everyone involved and I want to continue that – even if they’re wrong.”
The debate over whether and to what extent global warming may be influencing the behavior of the world’s hurricanes is scientifically complex, rife with data issues, and superimposed atop a disciplinary rift between climate scientists and hurricane forecasters as well as a politically charged debate over what, if anything, needs to be done about it. Whatever relationship is ultimately found to exist between hurricanes and climate change, it will inevitably be complex and statistical. Global warming (defined as an average increase in global temperatures) can never be determined to “cause” a specific storm. However, global warming may affect a great many environmental factors that could, in turn, strengthen hurricanes on average and increase their destructive potential.
First, there’s evidence that global warming will make (or has already made) storms stronger for thermodynamic reasons. Furthermore, if global warming increases the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere then hurricanes – which cause heavy precipitation and sometimes massive flooding – may produce more rain; similarly, if global warming causes a significant rise in sea level, destructive hurricanes may penetrate further inland. Based on what we already know about global warming, such changes are considered likely in the coming decades, yet the importance of other factors remains much more obscure. Consider the effect of an El Nino year, characterized by strong warming in the tropical Pacific ocean off the coast of South America: It tends to suppress hurricanes in the North Atlantic but increase them in the Eastern Pacific. So how will global warming alter the frequency and strength of what scientists refer to as the El Nino-Southern Oscillation, or ENSO? At this point the question isn’t settled, although scientists suspect that there will probably be an effect.
Scientific Uncertainty and the Tyranny of the News Peg
What does it all add up to? A true headache even for the most seasoned science reporter. “Journalism isn’t used to these kinds of problems,” remarks Andrew Revkin of the New York Times, who has covered the hurricane-global warming debate. He continues: “The great strength of the global warming argument lies in the balance of the evidence. The closer you bore into specific impacts like hurricanes, however, the more equivocal the science gets.” In the face of such complexity, it may seem tempting to pronounce that an utter mismatch exists in this case between the culture of journalism and the culture of science – that, in other words, meaningful reporting on the hurricane-global warming controversy is doomed from the start. In fact, that would be going too far.
Our examination of hurricane-global warming coverage across the national trend-setting newspapers and major regional papers found several noteworthy articles accurately detailing the complexity of the science. At the same time, however, we found some reporters—sometimes in the context of the same stellar writing—building their stories around emotional conflict between scientists, a tendency that drives the researchers themselves to become quite angry at the media.
In truth, however, scientists’ complaints about journalists stirring up or even exacerbating personal controversies capture only one problem with media coverage of the hurricane-global warming link. A more overarching issue is this: Although journalists have framed the story from three main angles—an emphasis on breaking scientific news (defined by the release of a study at Science or Nature), an emphasis on conflict between scientists (by playing up personal tensions at conferences), and an emphasis on government accountability (the control of media statements made by agency scientists)—in each case they have been far too trapped by what Revkin has called the “tyranny of the news peg.”
Motivated by a need to appear objective and cautious, journalists have tried to tie their coverage too closely to breaking events or controversy, a pattern that can be very ill suited to a complex scientific topic like the hurricane-global warming issue. Unfortunately, such coverage sacrifices key elements that readers need most, especially as the 2006 hurricane season enters its peak months of August and September: Sustained attention, a strong emphasis on scientific context, and then—even in the face of inevitable and undeniable scientific uncertainty—an integrated discussion of policy options.
A Connection to Global Warming?
Hurricanes have struck North America and the Caribbean from time immemorial; in 1502, during his fourth voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus dodged a hurricane in the Caribbean Sea. The contemporary focusing event for hurricanes in the U.S. came in 1992, when Hurricane Andrew hammered the Bahamas, Florida, and Louisiana, causing an estimated 26.5 billion dollars in damage. Andrew represented something of an anomaly for its era, however; scientists now believe that a “new normal” for hurricane activity in the North Atlantic began in 1995.
Since then, news organizations have turned hurricane season into an annual ritual, with correspondents descending on the Gulf Coast region every August and September. The stakes were raised dramatically in the year 2004, when an unprecedented four storms—Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne—flattened Florida, costing tens of billion of dollars in insured and uninsured damage. After 2004, few expected that the 2005 North Atlantic season could actually be worse, but of course, it was. A record 28 storms occurred last year, among them monsters like Katrina, Rita, and Wilma, which had the lowest central pressure of any known hurricane in the North Atlantic, a key measure of storm intensity.
Dramatically active North Atlantic hurricane seasons like 2004 and 2005 inevitably trigger speculation about a possible role for global warming—and even before the aforementioned 2005 studies addressed the topic, the theoretical reasons for suspecting an influence were clear. Although many factors affect hurricane strength and the regions in which they occur, scientists have understood since at least the 1950s that hurricanes are fundamentally driven by warm ocean water – that they are, as MIT hurricane expert Kerry Emanuel has put it, “heat engines.”
A hurricane’s inflowing winds draw heat energy from the ocean through the process of evaporation, which locks so-called “latent heat” into molecules of water vapor. At the storm’s eye wall, the moist, warm and spiraling air rises in thick cumulonimbus clouds, fueling a dramatic pressure drop that pulls winds inward still faster along the sea surface. Meanwhile, higher in the atmosphere, the latent heat is released as “sensible heat,” warming the rising air and raising it still higher. In an intensifying hurricane whose central pressure is dropping, stronger inflowing winds trigger still more evaporation, leading to still more rising air, more latent heat release, and so on.
Given these fairly basic processes, many scientists consider it little more than common sense that if you increase the temperature of the ocean (as global warming has not only been predicted but demonstrated to do) then all else being equal, you will also increase the potential intensity that the average hurricane can achieve. (Whether you would increase the total number of storms is a different and more knotty question, and one that scientists have made less progress on.) And in fact, theoretical and computer modeling studies had long suggested that hurricanes would strengthen as global temperatures rose, and that their levels of precipitation would increase.
But the stakes increased considerably in 2005, with the publication of two prominent scientific papers – by MIT’s Kerry Emanuel in Nature and by Peter Webster of the Georgia Institute of Technology and his colleagues in Science – suggesting that this problem wasn’t merely one to be considered with an eye to the future; instead, it had already happened. The two studies triggered strong critical responses from many skeptical scientists, including Chris Landsea and others from the hurricane forecasting community, many of whom questioned the reliability of the historical data that Emanuel and Webster used in order to identify trends.
Framing Responsibility for Hurricane Katrina
Into this miasma wandered journalists, who had far more than complicated technical issues to grapple with. Within days of Katrina’s landfall, a framing contest began to spin the still uncertain science in politically advantageous ways. The Emanuel study came out three weeks before Katrina made landfall; the Webster study eight days before Rita hit. On the one hand, a who’s who of Democratic leaders including Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Jimmy Carter cited the recent scientific findings to warn that global warming had contributed to the hurricane problem, and to push for action on greenhouse gas emissions.
Variations on this message appeared in two September columns by Nicholas Kristof and two editorials at The New York Times, but also in work by columnists at the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and The Washington Post. Skeptics responded by disputing the scientific evidence and insisting that no serious cuts in emissions were required. “There is no relationship between global warming and the frequency and intensity of Atlantic hurricanes. Period,” Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote, rather incautiously, in early September. Others suggested the real focus should be on adapting coastal areas to the likelihood of future disasters. Later would come reports of personal fights between scientists, and allegations of suppression of dissent at government agencies.
Amidst the political rhetoric and opinion-page debate, many of the science reporters we spoke with for this article believed that in the weeks after Katrina their job was to cover the nature of the science, rather than the dramatic framing of policy implications. “It’s all kind of predictable,” said Mike Toner of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “You know which side someone is on, so the only new element in all of this is data, is scientific research.” Andrew Revkin of The New York Times also expressed skepticism about how advocates had been using the hurricane-climate issue: “Environmentalists and some scientists are trying to now frame hurricanes as the key thing. Back in the 1990s it was the burning Amazon, then it was the melting Arctic, and now it’s the stronger hurricane story.”
Most of the coverage by science writers clustered around the September 16 release of the Webster study in Science, though some reports about the Emanuel study in Nature appeared pre-Katrina. The format for spot news was familiar: Describe the main findings of the study as the lead and middle portion of the article; and then connect the work to any previously published findings. In many cases, articles ended with dissenting comments from scientists, but in shorter articles no counter arguments were included. At least partly addressing this weakness, science writers also wrote technical backgrounders, most of which appeared in the second half of September and early October. In these articles, they tried to draw readers away from the immediacy of the events, and to interpret the debate over the emerging science.
Science writers, however, faced two major challenges. First, they had to counter the widespread (and incorrect) belief that global warming could be said to directly “cause” a single event like Katrina. In a September 24 backgrounder for The New York Times, Andrew Revkin went with this effective description: “The murkiness arises because the relationship between long-term warming of the climate and seas is only perceptible in statistical studies of dozens of storms, not in the origin or fate of any particular storm.”
Unfortunately, in several articles, reporters appeared to actually confuse the issue of how to understand global trends in hurricane intensity with the question of what might have specifically caused individual hurricanes. For example, in an October 22 article for the Boston Globe, Beth Daley opened by describing the Nature and Science studies, but then transitioned into discussing the conditions in the Caribbean that might have contributed to Katrina’s and Rita’s destructive power. At no point in the article, however, did Daley draw a bright line for readers between long term trends in hurricane intensity and the causes of any specific hurricane or its behavior. Later, in Time magazine’s much noted April cover story on global warming, reporter Jeffrey Kluger fell into the same trap, implying a causal relationship between global warming and Tropical Cyclone Larry, a powerful storm that had just struck Australia.
The second challenge involved relaying the disagreement between scientists in a way that improved on the standard “he said, she said” formula. Context is needed when applying this routine; without a careful dose of details, readers will be left with a cloud of unspecified doubt, as sometimes happened in post-Katrina coverage. (In this case, the most extreme examples took the form of reports filed by the major news networks, where the accent on visuals and drama, and the brevity of the reports, made addressing complexity almost impossible.)
On the other hand, one journalist who successfully went beyond the basic “he said, she said” formula was Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post. In covering the Science study, Eilperin searched around for a researcher who appeared to be going through a process of conversion based on the new findings. She turned to Florida International University scientist Hugh Willoughby, who described it as difficult to find any holes in the new study. “Frequently scientific discoveries force people to reassess how they view something,” said Eilperin of her method. “The fact that some of the former skeptics are willing to go on record and say that they might be changing their minds provides readers with a better context for what is going on.”
In September and October, other news beats also picked up on the global warming and hurricane angle. At the Washington Post, for example, stories ran in the local sections about community meetings focused on the potential threat to the Chesapeake Bay area. Across several papers, foreign correspondents covered statements from European officials about the need for immediate U.S. action on global warming, and business writers reported on calls from the insurance industry for a rethinking of coastal development as well as for limits on greenhouse gas emissions. Veteran science writer Cornelia Dean focused in three articles for The New York Times on coastal development. One of these reports mentioned the connection between global warming and rising ocean levels and another made a brief mention of the suggested link to hurricanes, but neither topic comprised a central focus.
But by November 2005, as no new studies emerged from the major journals and the political clamor subsided, science reporters and their colleagues at other news beats found themselves without a convenient news peg. (It wouldn’t be until early 2006 that journalists would turn to conferences or agency allegations as additional coverage opportunities.) As a consequence, with the exception of a handful of articles, the hurricane-climate issue disappeared from the pages of the agenda-setting newspapers, despite its potential significance.
Between August 30 and the end of October 2005, 19 news stories and opinion articles on the topic ran at The New York Times and Washington Post. Yet between November 2005 and August of this year, only 25 total articles have followed, and 6 of these included only incidental mentions based on reviews of TV programs, documentaries, or books. In comparison, during the same period, hundreds of articles have focused on the political dimensions of Katrina related to race, poverty, recovery efforts, and government competence.
Forward Looking Policy Coverage?
After the destruction of New Orleans by a hurricane and the publication of two major studies suggesting that human activities might have made the average hurricane more intense, news organizations needed to integrate the scientific debate with a serious discussion of the possible policy options, even in the face of ongoing scientific uncertainty. Hurricanes could not necessarily be entirely dismissed as random acts of God, or “whims of nature,” as President Bush described them in his address to the nation from New Orleans. Instead, serious scientific evidence, however contested, suggested that the destructive impacts of hurricanes might have a human component, and that that human component would increase over time.
So the obvious question to ask should have been: Is cutting down on greenhouse gases a good way of addressing potentially growing hurricane risks? Or, given that a dramatic concentration of human greenhouse gas emissions are already in the atmosphere, committing us to a significant degree of warming already, do we have no choice but to simply adapt to hurricane risks through measures such as stronger levee and seawall construction, better evacuation routes and building codes, restoration of natural barriers, or perhaps restricting insurance for some coastal areas? These themes were scattered across the bulk of articles filed at the different news beats, but because they remained disconnected and fragmented, readers had little hope of connecting the dots and understanding the relevance of the information. Fragmentation also likely dampened a sense of urgency about the problem.
Perhaps not surprisingly given the limitations in news coverage, the only place where all of these separate factors came together was on opinion pages. For example, Nicholas Kristof, in his two September 2005 columns at The New York Times, and Ronald Brownstein in a column the same month at the Los Angeles Times, both cited the Nature and Science studies to warn that even in the face of scientific uncertainty, policy discussions needed to take place. “It’s nuts to ignore a threat just because its hard to measure,” wrote Kristof in a September 23 column. “We spend about $500 billion a year on a military budget, yet we don’t want to spend peanuts to protect against climate change, which is a greater potential threat than any foreign military power.”
In his column, Brownstein opened by providing background on the scientific debate, but then transitioned into a policy discussion, asserting: “Indeed, the implications are alarming enough that Washington should begin considering them before all the evidence is in.” On coastal development, he quoted MIT’s Emanuel as follows: “Everyone in my field feels strongly that this is the most important question, almost independent of whether there is global warming.” Brownstein then closed by placing the debate on greenhouse gas emissions in the context of the 2005 federal energy bill, from which mandatory industry emissions cuts and improved fuel standards for cars were ultimately dropped.
By e-mail, we asked Kristof about the possibility for more “precautionary” journalism when it came to covering emerging science with large potential implications for society. “There’s a risk that writing about risks in the future will end up being sensationalist or exaggerated,” he wrote from South Africa, where he was on assignment. “But . . . frankly the public is better served by information about future risks that they can do something about than about those that have already played out.”
If columnists could put these angles together last fall, why couldn’t science writers? In combination with tight deadlines and space, science writers’ need to appear objective and cautious in news reporting led to the heavy reliance on the release of a new study to justify filing a story. The perceived scientific uncertainty concerning the relationship between hurricanes and global warming also made science writers cautious about how to judge the newsworthiness of the issue. “The science is not absolutely settled on this question, and that’s what keeps this from being a bigger story,” said Eilperin of the Washington Post. She continued: “There should be a concern that if you get too far out ahead of the science, if you hype up the story and the science, then you misled readers.” But shouldn’t it be possible for journalists to fully describe scientific uncertainty and yet also introduce readers to the kinds of policy considerations that emerge if one takes a precautionary orientation towards the latest research?
Conflicts and Conferences as Front Page News
With objectivity and caution the guiding norms, in early 2006 some science writers turned to coverage of scientific conferences as their next news peg. In these contexts, outside of the normal vetting process and controlled discourse of the scientific journal article, uncertainty as well as personal conflicts can mushroom. “It’s entirely normal that the first time a scientist presents his results is at a conference like this,” said Kerry Emanuel when asked about the matter in Monterey. “You can’t demand published results [at a conference], nor can you tell journalists they can’t come to a conference.”
Valerie Bauerlein’s front page February 2 Wall Street Journal article represents both the perceived good and bad of this type of coverage. Reporting on the American Meteorological Association meetings in Atlanta, Bauerlein’s article opens with a heavy accent on interpersonal conflict between scientists, a tone amplified by the Page One headline: “Cold Front: Hurricane Debate Shatters Civility of Weather Science.” At the conference, wrote Bauerlein, the reasons for the deadly 2005 hurricane season “were almost too hot to handle.” She then turned to criticisms of the Webster study in Science, quoting longtime Colorado State University hurricane specialist William Gray as saying that “Judith Curry [one of Webster’s co-authors] just doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” and then quoting Curry with the reaction that Gray suffered from “brain fossilization.”
The use of scientific conferences and meetings as news pegs also appeared at the Houston Chronicle, the Tampa Tribune, the Denver Post, and several smaller papers, but none of these articles came even close to offering the same kind of opening fireworks. More than any other article, it seems clear that Bauerlein’s piece is the one that scientists have in mind when they condemn the media for overemphasizing personal battles rather than seriously covering the science. Hurricane specialist Chris Landsea of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says his main reaction to the Wall Street Journal piece was “sadness.” He continues: “It’s unfortunate that the debate can kind of devolve into that kind of name calling.”
Despite the dramatic headline and opening paragraphs, as a backgrounder, the 2059 word article by Bauerlein went on to provide some of the best insight into the technical dispute. Yet, the Wall Street Journal‘s decision to highlight personal conflict in the opening and headline to Bauerlein’s article helped to feed a culture of distrust between scientists and journalists. (We contacted Bauerlein to talk to her about the story, but as per Wall Street Journal policy, were referred to her editor for comments.)
Holding Government Agencies Accountable
In addition to personal conflict, journalists found another hook for the hurricane-global warming story, once again tying their coverage to controversy, although this time of an institutional rather than interpersonal nature. They began to cover charges that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had taken a stance of unjustifiable denial of any hurricane-global warming link, and perhaps even had suppressed scientists within the agency who dissented from this perspective. The “government accountability” angle certainly merited coverage, but once again, it created a formula in which journalists could not pay adequate attention to policy options.
The origins of how government accountability became newsworthy traces back to official agency reaction immediately following Katrina. In Senate testimony on September 20, National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield stated that the current period of intense Atlantic hurricane activity was “not enhanced substantially” by global warming. Then, as the 2005 hurricane season drew to a close, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (of which the hurricane center is part) held a press conference where an agency scientist told reporters that warmer ocean temperatures could be attributed solely to natural climate fluctuations and were “not related to greenhouse warming.” In a press release and in the official agency magazine, NOAA went even further, asserting that the views expressed were a matter of consensus at the agency. In fact, however, no such consensus existed.
Still, the simmering controversy at NOAA did not appear in news coverage until after parallel revelations at the National Aeronautics and Space Agency emerged in early 2006. As first reported by Andrew Revkin in a January 29 article that ran as the lead story in the Sunday edition of The New York Times, NASA’s James Hansen claimed that public affairs officials at the agency had tried to block his ability to make public statements about the urgency of addressing climate change. The prominence of the Times article generated a flurry of follow-up reports at other major media outlets, while setting in motion a series of events that continued to give the story legs.
According to Revkin, when he broke the NASA story, he knew of similar allegations at NOAA, but he could not get a scientist at the agency to go on record—a scenario that he believes quickly changed. “I think after the NASA episode, it emboldened people to go public,” said Revkin. “The Hansen piece uncorked a bottle. It clearly made it easier for a lot of scientists to talk more freely.”
Hansen continued to stir the pot in statements made at a conference in New York, where he claimed he knew NOAA scientists who were afraid to speak out about efforts at information control—comments reported by Juliet Eilperin in a February 11 Washington Post article. With pressure building on NOAA, the stage was set for a February 16 article at The Wall Street Journal by Antonio Regalado and Jim Carlton. The clincher was a Web posting by NOAA administrators in which the agency backed away from the previous year’s statements about the existence a consensus view on hurricanes and global warming. An email followed the same day from the chief administrator to NOAA scientists encouraging them to “speak freely and openly.” Regalado and Carlton included in their story the first on-the-record allegations from NOAA scientists regarding agency efforts to control their statements to the media.
On April 6, Eilperin offered new reporting at the Post, with comments from additional NOAA-affiliated scientists alleging that since 2004 they had been required to clear all press requests with administration officials. In these articles, what had started as a controversy over the emerging science of hurricanes had morphed into a political story about whistle blowers, with an emphasis on the accountability and transparency of government agencies. The accountably frame brings to light important information while allowing journalists to ply their investigative instincts. Nevertheless, reports on the NOAA allegations once again remained disconnected from the context of the science or any discussion of the policy options, only perpetuating a fragmented narrative about the link between hurricanes and global warming and what to do about it.
Science, Policy, and Objectivity
The absence of an ideal narrative on hurricanes and global warming emerges from a complexity of reasons. With tight deadlines and many competing issues surrounding not only Katrina, but global warming generally, there never appeared to be enough time or space to move beyond the tyranny of the news peg. Moreover, the need for science writers to appear cautious and objective also limited the types of assertions they could make, which in turn hindered their ability to shift towards a discussion of policy options. Whereas columnists like Nicholas Kristof and Ronald Brownstein had license to write in the face of scientific uncertainty about the bigger picture, science writers needed credentialed experts to go on record emphasizing the need for a policy focus. For whatever reason, even though out-of-office political leaders like Al Gore and spokespeople for major environmental groups kept pushing this theme, they never gained standing as sources in news coverage. Science writers made oblique references to these political claims, but generally used them to set up their “just the scientific facts” backgrounders.
In the future, however, this just isn’t going to be good enough. Over the next decade or more, explaining the possible strategies for coping with intense hurricanes even in the face of uncertainty about the ways and extent to which hurricanes might be changing will pose a major challenge for news organizations. Reporters must strive to show the public not only the science in all of its complexity, but also to open a window on why addressing the problem matters and the choices the nation faces over how to do that. This will require balancing the desire to appear objective against the need for precautionary and forward-looking coverage – coverage that helps set the agenda for how we think about the possible effects of global warming. It will also require getting beyond the tyranny of relying on major new studies, personality conflicts, or overt political conflict as the primary means of defining what counts as newsworthy.
And just in time: Outside of the media spotlight, a vigorous discussion has already begun between scientists and policy analysts about the extent to which the emerging science on hurricanes and global warming does or does not justify an attempt to limit greenhouse gas emissions or adopt other precautionary policy measures. On the one hand, University of Colorado political scientist Roger Pielke, Jr. and his colleagues argue that by far the most important factors influencing our susceptibility to hurricanes are “growing population and wealth in exposed coastal locations.” When viewed in comparison with the urgent need to address this societally-induced vulnerability, they maintain that the question of whether or not hurricanes might themselves be growing stronger is quickly overshadowed in significance. On the other hand, in an article in the May issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, a group of leading climate scientists and hurricane experts claim that the balance of the evidence already suggests a human impact on hurricanes, and urge a more precautionary approach to policy.
Both sides of this debate worry about the vulnerability of coastal areas, but then the question becomes, Will they become even more vulnerable due to global warming, and if so, what should we do about it? These issues, while of massive importance, are routinely ignored by policymakers; for example, New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin has stated that “Katrina is the standard” when it comes to rebuilding the city’s levees, even though the more extreme global warming scenarios suggest that this could be woefully inadequate in the long term.
Responsibility for effectively covering these emerging policy questions should not rest solely with journalists. For example, Pielke suggests that improving coverage will require a rethinking of the role of scientists as communicators. “Scientists need to say why research about this is of public interest,” argues Pielke. “If the scientists being interviewed, and the journalists don’t include the policy context, it’s a little bit of a Rorschach test for the public, and it gets mapped on to the underlying ideological debate.” He points to a recent report by the British Royal Society that recommends that science journals, when releasing an important new study, also simultaneously publish a separate, peer-reviewed article that outlines the policy relevance of the work. When covering the release of future scientific studies, if journalists could simultaneously turn to authoritative, peer-reviewed assertions about what might be done in the policy realm, it might make it easier for them to move beyond a “just the science” approach.
Indeed, in late July a group of ten climate scientists and hurricane experts including Kerry Emanuel, Chris Landsea, Max Mayfield, Judith Curry, and Peter Webster issued a joint statement calling attention to the immediate policy implications of the hurricane problem. The group observed that although they currently disagree over whether hurricanes have measurably intensified due to global warming, that ongoing scientific debate should not distract from addressing the immediate problem of population growth and development in coastal regions. “We are optimistic that continued research will eventually resolve much of the current controversy over the effect of climate change on hurricanes. But the more urgent problem of our lemming-like march to the sea requires immediate and sustained attention,” wrote the group. “We call upon leaders of government and industry to undertake a comprehensive evaluation of building practices, and insurance, land use, and disaster relief policies that currently serve to promote an ever-increasing vulnerability to hurricanes.” The statement was covered by Andrew Revkin on July 25 as part of his paper’s weekly Science Times section, but to date, it has yet to be picked up by other major media outlets.
In sum, science writers continue to worry about how the issue of hurricanes and global warming is being used politically, and many also assert that caution demands the publication of more research before they can move ahead on the story. These are all legitimate concerns, and the pressure exerted by both editors and media watchdogs to not “take sides” is real. Yet given their specialization and experience, science writers are perhaps uniquely qualified to shield themselves from allegations of bias, and to interpret the policy implications of the subjects they’re covering for readers. As long as they ground their stories in thorough, fair-minded reporting and do not stray into unsupported speculation or unnecessary argumentation, these journalists could provide a true public service. Such changes in how journalists and scientists negotiate what counts as news could mean that, when the next big storm hits, we have a chance to bring the policy questions into sharper focus. Otherwise, the public will be left with an all-too-familiar repeating narrative of conflict and doubt.