Hurricanes, Typhoons, and the Climate Change Narrative

By Ryan Bartlett, WWF-US

The strongest tropical cyclone to make landfall in recorded history, Typhoon Haiyan left a devastating wake in its path. Unfortunately, when it comes to reporting its relation to climate change, the collective media narrative in the U.S. has been the same tired ambiguity: that it’s impossible to connect the causes of any single storm to climate change (according to an analysis of U.S. TV and print media coverage of Haiyan, 70% of stories included this caveat, if they mention climate change at all).

Technically, this is true: months of rigorous analysis is required to make the exact linkages between our warming world and any single storm event that hard science demands (see this effort, for example, where scientists directly linked half of the 12 extreme storms in 2012 to climate change). But journalists do the public a great disservice pushing these same tropes of the difficulties connecting single extreme storms and a warmer world. They feed a misunderstanding that climate change is some nebulous, temporally undefined problem only concerning future generations because the effects are difficult to understand and decades off.

Obviously, this isn’t true; Hurricane Sandy should have been a clarion wake-up call for the American public that climate change is very real and very devastating. To some extent it was, but as is often the case in this hyper-charged media world we live in where narratives change by the tweet, that call was fleeting, and public demands for action are back to their usual stagnant burble. Obviously there are other issues at play here—most importantly, a U.S. congress more likely to shut down the government than pass a climate bill—but they are also easy cop-outs.

For the larger public good, journalists need to do a better job communicating how climate change is already having significant impacts. They should focus on how tropical cyclones like Haiyan are that much more powerful because of decades of warming via increased sea-surface temperatures that provide an incredible intensifying energy source (tropical hurricanes can contain as much energy as a developed nation like the UK or France uses in an entire year). Haiyan was in part so devastating because its intensity increased so quickly (waters in its path were a full 3 °C (5 °F) warmer than average!).

Heads in the sand: according to this analysis, less than 5% of total print and media coverage on Haiyan even mentioned climate change, let alone questioned its link to the super storm.

If media narratives around warming are bad, those around sea level rise are even worse, in part because scientists continually spout projections for the year 2100 – a time so far in the future that many of us are more likely to imagine things like hoverboards or attacking aliens than any of the extreme hardships a 5 °C (9 °F) warmer world would bring for our kids and grandkids.

However, as we have repeatedly seen with these storms around the world in recent years (including Sandy), existing sea level rise, even if no more than a few inches or centimeters, has disproportionate consequences, raising the storm surge and carrying it that much farther inland. Think about it: if the threshold of your front door a few hundred yards from the beach is two feet off the ground, and the surge carries water right up to it, but not over by an inch, you are going to worry about how things might be different in the coming years, especially when those surges are intensifying with increasingly powerful storms. This is exactly what is happening in the Philippines, where sea levels are rising at four times the global average.

Though journalists everywhere are getting better at communicating these issues, they continue, however inadvertently, to perpetuate the same apathy that has stagnated action on climate by sacrificing the greater good for the scientific perfect. It would be much more effective to end these narratives that attempt to prove, disprove, or avoid altogether discussing immediate causality and lead first with what we do know: warming is already having an effect, making storms that much more devastating, and that major political and economic efforts are necessary to prevent them from getting worse. It’s the only way these constant wake-up calls will have any effect in motivating the public, particularly Americans, to demand action.