November 14, 2012, by Warren Pearce

Short circuiting the language of Sandy – how to balance literalism and lucidity?

My previous post here at MSP reflected on comments in the BBC’s Climategate Revisited programme, suggesting that uncertainties in climate science have come to the fore in the years following the  publication of scientists’ emails. By being more open about such uncertainties, there may be a hope that some of the public trust lost after Climategate may be restored. Against this background, I examine the balancing act between scientific and journalistic accuracy visible in the debate around Hurricane* Sandy and climate change.

Sandy was a huge weather event affecting much of the Caribbean and a densely populated area of the US. In the US it was also a huge political event, occurring in the tail-end of the Presidential election campaign, providing a fresh lens on a number of existing debates: social inequality, the role and size of government and the increasingly polarised nature of US politics. Perhaps unexpectedly given the Presidential campaigns’ “climate silence”, Sandy also re-energised the climate change debate, albeit through the striking Business Week cover (right) which eschewed uncertainties in favour of impact.

Here, I will outline three approaches to the use of language when discussing links between climate change and extreme weather: scientific literalism, systemic causation and tabloid climatology.

Scientific literalism

While this language most closely reflects the scientific evidence, David Roberts argues that it is rather awkward, and does not fit with everyday styles of speaking. The Boston Globe provides a good example of such prose:

While the hurricane was not directly attributable to global warming, scientists said it fits a pattern of more severe weather influenced by climate change.

This statement takes great care to be accurate, but also illustrates a possible trade-off between literalism and lucidity. How much has it really told me about whether or not there is a link between Sandy and climate change?

Systemic causation

One approach could be to revisit the meaning of ‘causation’. Post-Sandy, George Lakoff argues for new language with which to express causal links within the highly complex climatic system. Lakoff highlights two different forms of causation: throwing a rock which breaks a window is an example of direct causation, whereas the link between drunk-driving and car accidents is one of systemic causation. The direct cause of such an accident might be failing to drive round a corner at the correct speed, thus leaving the road. However, few people would argue with the statement that “drunk-driving causes car accidents”, even though it linguistically short circuits the chain of causation.

Lakoff provides a more precise distinction between types of causation. However, it does not escape the ‘awkward language’ problem. Distinguishing between types of causation might be a useful philosophical exercise, but how important is it in plain-language communication of the links between extreme weather and climate change? David Roberts suggests that when discussing climate change, such short circuiting is resisted as it remains unfamiliar as an influence on everyday events. If this is correct, then “climate change causes hurricanes” may become, in time, as acceptable as other expressions of systemic causation.

Tabloid climatology

This brings us back to the Bloomberg Business Week cover, which I will unflatteringly term ‘tabloid climatology’. The cover does not use the word ‘cause’. Nevertheless its stark imagery and language leaves a strong impression that climate change has caused Sandy. This represents a further short circuiting of language, expressing causation through an image and headline which get the point over, has some truth in it [see notes below for more on this], but may also raise concerns that over-simplifying complex systems results in exaggeration and distortion of the scientific evidence. Indeed, the article within Business Week does present a more nuanced approach, starting with an admission that it is “unsophisticated to blame any given storm on climate change” and that “men and women in white lab coats tell us – and they’re right – that many factors contribute to each sever weather episode”, before arguing that the climate effects on extreme weather are significant enough to prompt policy changes.

Literalism and lucidity: differing notions of accuracy?

While Business Week illustrates the familiar point that stark media headlines often disguise a more complex story, perhaps it also demonstrates how the media likes to establish ‘the facts of the matter’, whereas scientific research is more focused on uncertainty. Is it inevitable that public explanations of climate change will be simplified from the scientific literature? Perhaps scientists and journalists simply deal in different types of knowledge, and have different notions of accuracy: scientists aim to be as literal as possible, and can make their arguments within lengthy journal articles written in technical language. Journalists also strive for accuracy, but need to be lucid enough to express the ‘gist’ of a story in more ordinary language within restricted space.

The question is whether journalistic short circuiting of scientific language, as exemplified by Business Week, strikes the right balance between literalism and lucidity, or whether it represents the kind of over-simplification which will ultimately hinders attempts to regain trust post-Climategate?

Some notes and further links on causation:

The US National Hurricane Centre’s Chris Landsea – in a highly recommended lecture – estimates that climate change only worsens hurricanes by around 1%, and likely only by 3% by 2100. Against this, Dan Satterfield argues that climate change made Sandy wetter (due to more atmospheric water vapour) and increased the storm surge by at least a foot. Go to Climate Brief for a good round-up of scientific reporting around Sandy & climate change.

* Clarification: Sandy was downgraded to ‘Tropical Storm’ status once it reached landfall in the US


Posted in Climate ChangeClimate PoliticsScience CommunicationUnited States of America