Photo: Chris Toombes
If you’re like me, you’ve been mentally cataloging a bunch of weather
events that have seemed weird and extreme, wondering to yourself: Is this normal? Am I the only one who thinks this is odd?
Prompted by those feelings, and spurred on by a nascent conversation
about the connections between extreme weather and climate change, I
started asking the question: Just how should climate change communicators be talking about the weather?
One possible answer came from national climate action guru Bill McKibben.
Sidestepping (stomping on?) the standard-issue disclaimer that “no
single weather event can ever be directly tied to climate change,” in a Washington Post op-ed called “A link between climate change and Joplin tornadoes? Never!,” McKibben pours on the sarcasm and tops it with a big helping of irony. He insists that we should absolutely not, under any circumstances, make connections between climate science and the
devastating storms, fires, drought, bug infestations, crop failures, or
floods we’re witnessing at home and across the globe. Nope! “Best not to
ask yourself if there’s a connection,” he writes, “because then you’d
inevitably have to wonder about all kinds of other things that you
probably don’t want to wonder about, for example, whether President
Obama really should have opened a huge swath of Wyoming to new coal
mining,” or if Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should really “sign a
permit this summer allowing a huge new pipeline to carry oil from the
tar sands of Alberta?”
My initial response: Yes! Go, Bill McKibben! He articulated
exactly what a Climate Nerd like me was feeling — and said it all without
really saying anything at all that science deniers could attack. Why didn’t I think of that?! (Incidentally, McKibben’s op-ed makes for a chilling voice-over script for this video montage by Plomomedia.)
Was it too snarky? Is dark humor inappropriate in this context? Were
his claims exaggerated? Climate policy advocates get antsy when one of
their own goes on the attack or strays from those ubiquitous
disclaimers. Indeed, there are many climate communicators who are gun
shy after 2009 polling by Gallup that showed that a record-high 41
percent of Americans thought that media coverage of the threats of global warming were exaggerated. That’s when many of us swore off messages about scary “gloom and doom” climate impacts, instead focusing on solutions and opportunities.
Despite the backlash — or perhaps because it prompted extreme
reactions — I’m thinking that McKibben’s approach probably worked best to
fire up tried and true climate activists — and it did get a charge out of
the science denial set as well. That’s McKibben’s job, after all. But
not all of us can pull that kind of thing off. Still, it’s our job to
acknowledge and communicate about the fact that climate scientists are
increasingly seeing the “fingerprints” of human-made carbon overload of
the atmosphere at the “crime scenes” of weather events.
Who else is talking about it?