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The Climate Debate's 'New Normal'

By Keith Kloor
Nov 16, 2012 11:26 PMNov 20, 2019 5:22 AM


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A year ago, I noted that "much reportage and analysis on climate change" was beginning to emphasize the connection between global warming and weather related catastrophes. This emphasis gave rise to a new meme, which Newsweek summarized in the sub-headline of a cover story:

In a world of climate change, freak storms are the new normal.

To understand just how widely this meme has since been embraced, google "new normal and climate change." But I'm jumping ahead. Before we get to how the "new normal" frame has shaped the dialogue on Hurricane Sandy, let's recall what Bill McKibben, one of the most prominent climate activists and environmental writers, had to say about the hurricane that grazed New York last year:

Irene's got a middle name, and it's Global Warming.

McKibben washardly alone in making this claim. By 2012, the climate change/severe weather connection had become a main talking point. As University of Washington atmospheric scientist Cliff Mass observed in April:

It is happening frequently lately. A major weather event occurs---perhaps a hurricane, heat wave, tornado outbreak, drought or snowstorm-- and a chorus of activist groups or media folks either imply or explicitly suggest that the event is the result of human-caused (anthropogenic) global warming.

Then came the summer of freak storms, catastrophic wildfires, record-breaking heat waves, and enduring drought. In July, the Guardian published an article titled:

"Is it now possible to blame extreme weather on global warming?

The reporter, Leo Hickman, asked a number of climate scientists if "specific extreme weather events are caused, or at least exacerbated, by global warming?" Many journalists at this time were asking the same question as Hickman. One answer that seemed to resonate widely was provided by oft quoted NCAR climate scientist Kevin Trenberth, who said this to PBS on July 2:

look out the window and you see climate change in action.

The meaning was unmistakable. Trenberth said the same thing to CBS the next day. The "new normal" meme was being cemented. Here's the headline from an APstory on July 3:

Climate Change: U.S. Heat Waves, Wildfires, and Flooding Are 'What Global Warming Look Like."

And here's the subhead to Hickman's July 3 Guardian piece:

Wildfires, heatwaves and storms witnessed in the US are 'what global warming looks like', say climate scientists

Fortuitously, a much publicized paper came out a week later, which the NYT characterized as thus in its headline:

Global warming makes heat waves more likely, study finds.

The cluster of severe weather events and disasters led Elizabeth Kolbert to write in a July 23 New Yorkercommentary:

The summer of 2012 offers Americans the best chance yet to get their minds around the [climate] problem.

In other words, a "teachable moment" was at hand, or, as was turning out to be the case, "teachable moments." The teaching extended into early August, when NASA climate scientist James Hansen published his widely-publicized Washington Post op-ed and study. Although there were dissenters, Hansen's pronouncement (that some recent heat waves and drought episodes were caused by global warming) sounded to many like the closing argument in a case that had already amassed solid, damning evidence. So when Hurricane Sandy arrived earlier this month, it didn't take long for climate change to be fingered as a culprit, including in this much-discussed story called, "It's Global Warming, Stupid." Several journalists challenged the simplistic, cause-and-effect proclamations. On Twitter and in his NYT Dot Earth blog, Andy Revkin sought to remain grounded in science, which led some green pundits to chastise him as "scold" who was trying to "tamp down" discussion of the link between global warming and Hurricane Sandy. The best rebuttal to this charge came from CJR's Curtis Brainard, who wrote that folks like Revkin were "trying to steer" the discussion "toward facts, and away from exaggerations." Powerful memes, however, can be impervious to facts. Consider how discussion on Hurricane Sandy has played out. For instance, a Reutersstory from last week starts:

Extreme weather sparked by climate change is "the new normal" and Superstorm Sandy that ravaged the U.S. Northeast is a lesson the world must pursue more environmentally friendly policies, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Friday.

Another example: New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo recently wrote in an op-ed:

Extreme weather is the new normal.

Green advocacy pundits worried about science-based journalists "tamping down" discussion on the climate change/severe weather connection need not worry. We should expect every major storm to now be discussed in the context of global warming. That is the new rhetorical normal, correct or not. I just laid out how we got to this point. There's probably no going back. This is the new normal in the climate debate, and pleas for a more nuanced conversation don't stand a chance.

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