by Eric Felten
The Pacific Northwest was hit with a record-shattering heat wave in June, with temperatures over 35 degrees higher than normal in some places. On June 28, Portland, Ore., reached 116 degrees. Late last week the region suffered another blast of hot weather, with a high in Portland of 103 degrees. The New York Times didn’t hesitate to pronounce the region’s bouts of extreme weather proof that the climate wasn’t just changing, but catastrophically so.
To make that claim, the Times relied on a “consortium of climate experts” that calls itself World Weather Attribution, a group organized not just to attribute extreme weather events to climate change, but to do so quickly. Within days of the June heat wave, the researchers released an analysis, declaring that the torrid spell “was virtually impossible without human-caused climate change.”
World Weather Attribution and its alarming report were trumpeted by Time magazine, touted by the NOAA website Climate.gov , and featured by CBS News, CNBC, Scientific American, CNN, the Washington Post, USAToday, and the New York Times, among others.
The group’s claim that global warming was to blame was perhaps less significant than the speed with which that conclusion was provided to the media. Previous efforts to tie extreme weather events to climate change hadn’t had the impact scientists had hoped for, according to Time, because it “wasn’t producing results fast enough to get attention from people outside the climate science world.”
“Being able to confidently say that a given weather disaster was caused by climate change while said event still has the world’s attention,” Time explained, approvingly, “can be an enormously useful tool to convince leaders, lawmakers and others that climate change is a threat that must be addressed.” In other words, the value of rapid attribution is primarily political, not scientific.
Inconveniently for World Weather Attribution, an atmospheric scientist with extensive knowledge of the Pacific Northwest climate was actively running weather models that accurately predicted the heatwave. Cliff Mass rejected the notion that global warming was to blame for the scorching temperatures. He calculated that global warming might have been responsible for two degrees of the near 40-degree anomaly. With or without climate change, Mass wrote, the region “still would have experienced the most severe heat wave of the past century.”
Mass has no shortage of credentials relevant to the issue: A professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, he is author of the book “The Weather of the Pacific Northwest.”
Mass took on the World Weather Attribution group directly: “Unfortunately, there are serious flaws in their approach.” According to Mass, the heatwave was the result of “natural variability.” The models being used by the international group lacked the “resolution to correctly simulate critical intense, local precipitation features,” and “they generally use unrealistic greenhouse gas emissions.”
WWA issued a “rebuttal” calling Mass’ criticisms “misleading and incorrect.” But the gauntlet thrown down by Mass did seem to affect WWA’s confidence in its claims. The group, which had originally declared the heatwave would have been “virtually impossible without human-caused climate change,” altered its tone. In subsequent public statements, it emphasized that it had merely been making “best estimates” and had presented them “with the appropriate caveats and uncertainties.” Scientists with the attribution group did not respond to questions about Mass’s criticisms posed by RealClearInvestigations.
But what of the group’s basic mission, the attribution of individual weather events to climate change? Hasn’t it been a fundamental rule of discussing extreme temperatures in a given place not to conflate weather with climate? Weather, it is regularly pointed out, refers to conditions during a short time in a limited area; climate is said to describe longer-term atmospheric patterns over large areas.
When Donald Trump joked, on a cold day, that he could go for some global warming, he was chastised for confusing weather with climate. The director of Yale University’s project on climate change communication, Anthony Leiserowitz, denounced Trump’s comment as “scientifically ridiculous and demonstrably false.”
“There is a fundamental difference in scale between what weather is and what climate is,” Leiserowitz added. “What’s going on in one small corner of the world at a given moment does not reflect what’s going on with the planet.”
Until recently, at least, climate scientists long warned against using individual weather events to ponder the existence or otherwise of global warming. Typically, that argument is used to respond to those who might argue a spate of extreme cold is reason to doubt the planet is warming. Using individual weather events to say anything about the climate is “dangerous nonsense,” the New Scientist warned a decade ago.
Perhaps, but it happens all the time now that climate advocates have found it to be an effective tool. In 2019, The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago found that three-fourths of those polled said their views about climate change had been shaped by extreme weather events. Leah Sprain, in the book “Ethics and Practice in Science Communication,” says that even though it may be legitimate to make the broad claim that climate change “may result in future extreme weather,” when one tries “arguing weather patterns were caused by climate change, things get dicey.” Which creates a tension: “For some communicators, the ultimate goal – mobilizing political action – warrants rhetorical use of extreme weather events.” But that makes scientists nervous, Sprain writes, because “misrepresenting science will undermine the credibility of arguments for climate change.”
Which is exactly what happened with the World Weather Attribution group, according to Mass: “Many of the climate attribution studies are resulting in headlines that are deceptive and result in people coming to incorrect conclusions about the relative roles of global warming and natural variability in current extreme weather,” he wrote at his blog. “Scary headlines and apocalyptic attribution studies needlessly provoke fear.”
Covering the back-and-forth between the World Weather Attribution and Mass, the Seattle Times labeled the local atmosphere academic “a controversial figure.” The newspaper noted that “Mass has sometimes gotten into very public disputes with other scientists.” He has also been critical of the news media — “including the Seattle Times,” wrote the Seattle Times — for what he says is alarmist coverage of the climate. The Seattle Times did not respond to questions from RCI.
The newspaper was not wrong that Mass has disagreed with his fellow climate scientists. He didn’t hesitate to take on any and all comers at the Real Climate blog. But he doesn’t think that should make him controversial. “Science is all about conflict,” Mass has said. “Somebody has an idea; and then someone else criticizes it.”
Mass also counts as “controversial” because he spoke out last summer against the rioting and looting taking place nightly in Seattle. A recurring segment he had on Tacoma public radio was canceled after Mass – on his own blog, not on the radio — likened the shattering of glass in Seattle to the shattered glass of Kristallnacht, the Nazi anti-Semitic pogrom.
The blogging professor laments that atmospheric sciences have been “poisoned” by politics. “It’s damaged climate science,” he told RCI.
And not just politics – Mass also says that the accepted tenets of global warming have become a sort of religion. Consider the language used, he says, such as the question of whether one “believes” in anthropogenic climate change. “You don’t believe in gravity,” he says. The religious metaphor also explains why colleagues get so bent out of shape with him, Mass says: “There’s nothing worse than an apostate priest.”
That goes even for those who are merely mild apostates. Mass doesn’t dispute warming, he merely questions how big a problem it is. “We need to worry about climate change,” he has said. “But hype and exaggeration of its impacts only undermine the potential for effective action.”
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Eric Felten contributes to RealClearInvestigations.