Communicating the Complexity of Climate Change in Sandy’s Wake

The controversial Businessweek cover in the aftermath of Sandy. (Source: Bloomberg Businessweek)

For the past several years, nearly all major news outlets and most high-profile politicians in the United States have been silent on the issue of human-caused climate change. Even in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, initial reporting on the catastrophe failed to mention climate change, at least directly. But it’s clear that this attitude needs to change. Fast.

As Sandy roared toward the Northeast, the New York Times, Washington Post, and Fox News all devoted time and space to covering the effects of the storm surge. They reported on its severity, emphasized where more aid was needed, and brought into sharp relief the human dimension of a more-than-human catastrophe. Reporters brought stories of devastation and heartache to the rest of the country (and the world) and gave readers and viewers tips on how they can assist the affected and support those who, in many cases, lost everything.

Several commentators, such as New York governor Andrew Cuomo, noted that extreme weather events are becoming more common, but they failed to mention the links to climate change directly. Limited and ambiguous references to climate change—one of the most pressing issues that humanity has ever faced—has long been the state of political discourse in the United States.

A welcome sea change?

Evidence of a possible shift appeared a few days after Sandy receded, as the media began to speak again of climate change. In his now widely shared BusinessWeek article, “It’s Global Warming, Stupid,” Paul Barrett writes, “Yes, yes, it’s unsophisticated to blame any given storm on climate change,” but he goes on to note: “Climate deniers exploit [this] scientific complexity to avoid any discussion at all…. In truth, what’s lacking in America’s approach to climate change is not the resources to act but the political will to do so.”

Then came the announcement that New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, citing a shift in his thinking brought on by the post-Sandy devastation, would be endorsing President Barack Obama for a second term in the Oval Office. Perhaps Bloomberg’s endorsement comes as too-little, too-late, especially for those of us who have championed a sustained and collective attempt to meet the challenge head on (after all, Obama, despite the occasional rhetorical remark, has done very little to address climate change). But it would be hard for any of us to say that the nature of Bloomberg’s endorsement isn’t a welcome change in the political discourse of our day.

Now Hurricane Sandy offers an opportunity to advance the discussion on climate change to its next phase: away from misinformation and toward a more balanced dialogue. The challenge of climate complexity that Barrett notes is worth dwelling on, because it highlights the central problem with communicating the relationship between climate and weather—a relationship that is systemic, not direct; statistically describable, but not causally predictable.

“Systemic causation”: a new mantra

Communicating the complexities of the climate-weather dynamic requires that we develop new ways of describing the climate change phenomenon. Erik Pooley, senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund, opts for a metaphor that many Americans can relate to, baseball: “We can’t say that steroids caused any one home run by Barry Bonds, but steroids sure helped him hit more and hit them farther. Now we have weather on steroids.”

UC Berkeley professor George Lakoff is completely unconcerned with sounding “unsophisticated” when he writes, in a recent blog: “Global warming is real, and it is here. It is causing —yes, causing—death, destruction, and vast economic loss.” But Lakoff, like Barrett, is fully aware of the problems associated with the word “cause” when thinking about climate change. Lakoff goes on: “Yes, global warming systemically caused Hurricane Sandy…. Let’s say it out loud, it was causation, systemic causation.”

President Obama's handling of Hurricane Sandy has been praised by the left and the right – now supporters wonder how he'll tackle climate change in a second term. (Source: White House)

This phrase, “systemic causation,” should be repeated like a mantra in all forms of media—from mainstream news outlets to blogs, twitter accounts, and Facebook posts—until the phrase becomes part of our shared lexicon for thinking about ecological issues like human-caused climate change. Systemic causation requires that we, the concerned and ecologically knowledgeable, play our part in describing the complex nature of climate change so that we can move forward with policies that recognize the multivalent social, political, and material catastrophes that are heading our way.

The time for leadership

With President Obama now set to enter his second term in office, some central questions remain: What mixture of policies, outreach, and preventative measures can be taken to increase responsiveness to climate change in the United States and around the world? How do we effectively make climate change a focal topic of political conversation? Although Obama made brief reference to climate change in his acceptance speech, stating, “We want our kids to grow up in an America…that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet,” the country still has little in the way of concrete plans for moving forward. Statements about climate change remain brief anecdotes framed as second-class problems by all three branches of government.

In the wake of Sandy, the citizens of the United States should find this unacceptable. Although the nature of systemic causation makes it impossible to say with certainty which extreme weather events are the direct result of climate change, we can demand leadership competent enough to construct a new vision of the future in an era of increased climate disruption. Indeed, now is the time not just to demand such a vision, but also to use our combined knowledge, media, and skills to put such a vision at the forefront of every issue that has to do with the future safety and flourishing of humans and other species across the globe.

Adam Robbert is an independent scholar and writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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