Journalists too often fail to note how climate change worsens extreme weather events, as Media Matters has documented on multiple occasions. But they should feel increasingly confident doing so. In recent years, climate change attribution science -- research that documents how climate change made specific weather events worse -- has become much more robust.
Vice News correspondent Arielle Duhaime-Ross reported on the increasing speed and confidence with which scientists can now measure climate change’s impact on individual incidences of extreme weather in a January 3 segment for HBO’s Vice News Tonight:
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: This science is really new. The first proper climate attribution study was published in 2004. Before that, scientists had struggled to explain exactly how specific weather events were connected to climate change.
Now, more and more solid, peer-reviewed studies show how climate change affects the likelihood and severity of extreme weather. And the studies are getting published really quickly after extreme weather events take place.
Remember that study from 2004? It looked at a European heat wave that took place in 2003, and it took a year and a half to complete. In contrast, just three months after Hurricane Harvey, scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory published a study showing that Harvey dropped 38 percent more rain than it would have without underlying climate change.
E&E News reporter Chelsea Harvey published an in-depth piece on the fast development of attribution science on January 2:
Extreme event attribution not only is possible, but is one of the most rapidly expanding subfields of climate science.
Over the last few years, dozens of studies have investigated the influence of climate change on events ranging from the Russian heat wave of 2010 to the California drought, evaluating the extent to which global warming has made them more severe or more likely to occur.
The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society now issues a special report each year assessing the impact of climate change on the previous year's extreme events.
Scientists cannot currently determine the impact of climate change on a specific event while that event is happening, but they might be able to in the future. “Some scientists hope to eventually launch a kind of standardized extreme event attribution service, similar to a weather forecasting service, that would release immediate analyses—with the same uniform methods used for each one—for every extreme event that occurs,” E&E News reported.
Oxford climate scientist Myles Allen made the same point in the Vice segment: “We should be able to do this much faster, but in my view, in the long term, this should be part of the duties of the weather service. It's no longer enough for the weather service just to predict the weather. They should be in the business of explaining it as well.”
Journalists too should be in the business of explaining what's behind extreme weather, not just reporting on that weather. Attribution science can help, even before it reaches the point of being able to offer real-time analyses.
The next time a hurricane makes landfall in the U.S., reporters can go beyond noting that scientists have told us to expect more damaging storms because of climate change. Reporters can point to attribution studies done on Hurricane Harvey, for example, and note that climate change boosted the storm's rainfall and made its extreme rainfall three times more likely.
Attribution studies don't predict how climate change will affect future storms, but they can help the public understand that climate change is affecting our weather right now. And as attribution science improves, climate journalism has a good opportunity to improve as well.