The need to exercise caution
It seems nowadays that there is barely a day goes by without somewhere in the world there being a report of record wildfires, heatwaves, floods or storms. The dire warnings of a distant, apocalyptic future are still as shrill as ever but now they are abundantly illustrated by reference to everything bad that the weather is throwing at us here and now. Each such report has a dual purpose, to emphasise the calamity befallen and to remind everyone that experts say climate change is destined to increase both frequency and severity. Furthermore, there will always be someone on hand to vouch for the disaster having been on a scale never seen before. It’s a winning narrative that is providing the motivation for everything net zero.
The favoured cliché used in such reports is that of the wake-up call. Unsurprisingly, therefore, subtlety has not been the objective, any more than it is for my alarm clock. No sooner has the reader stopped reeling from the distressing detail, he or she is then authoritatively warned that they could be next – and there’s even worse in store for their children. At first blush, there seems no avoiding the obvious conclusions. You can’t sleep through it because it is designed not to be slept through.
This design feature can be traced back to the point where the IPCC made it clear in their Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) that an increased emphasis on extreme weather events is to form a central strategy in encouraging society to buy into the net zero project. Such a shift would inevitably result in a queue of experts rationalising the new order by saying things are worse than they thought, i.e. things are happening a lot quicker than the science had suggested. Despite all of the confident predictions, it turns out they had all got it wrong, but in a good way if you are one of those calling for a climate change emergency to be declared.
Most climate change sceptics accept that the climate is changing and there is an anthropogenic component, but their continued opposition to current net zero plans has to be thoroughly discredited. With the new focus upon extreme weather events, climate change appeared to have become starkly evidence-based and complaints about an over-reliance on models wasn’t going to cut it anymore. Even so, in order to achieve this, the IPCC had to put it’s thumb on the scales. For that reason, caution should be exercised whenever evaluating a news report that covers an extreme weather event.
The Kentucky Floods
I’d like to illustrate the exploitative nature of extreme weather event reporting by reference to the recent Kentucky floods. I will be looking at a particular BBC report and, as always, context will be the all-important consideration. With the floods taken out of their correct context, the IPCC’s thumbprint can be discerned in the reporting.
Looking at the BBC report, it is evident that all the necessary components are there. Firstly, there is an emphasis on the scale and full horror of the event:
“President Joe Biden has declared the floods ‘a major disaster’ and ordered federal aid to help local rescuers. Among the dead are at least six children, including a one-year-old.”
Immediately followed by an authoritative link to climate change:
“Scientists say climate change is triggering more extreme weather events like the Kentucky flooding.”
Then there is the testimony that the event is unprecedented:
“Appalachia has had flash floods before, but not on this scale, [Kentucky Governor] Mr Beshear said. ‘Folks who deal with this for a living, who have been doing it for 20 years, have never seen water this high,’ he said.”
More distressing details are added before the report widens its scope:
“Kentucky, like other parts of the world, has seen the impact of more frequent extreme weather events.”
We are then provided with another authoritative claim that this is something new:
“The state has seen more inches of rain outside the historical average in the last 10 years, according to date [sic] from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Bill Haneberg, a climate expert and the state’s geologist, said this rainfall event is ‘extraordinary’ for Kentucky.”
The only thing missing this time around is the confession that scientists had got it wrong by thinking this sort of thing wouldn’t be happening just yet. On the contrary, in this version of the narrative it was all foreseen:
“He added that the increases in the amount of rainfall over the years are consistent with what experts have predicted for the region – that Kentucky’s climate would become hotter and wetter due to climate change.”
Finally, there is the gratuitous mentioning of another extreme weather bête noire:
“The historic flooding comes as the state recovers from the deadliest tornadoes in its history, which killed more than 70 in December 2021.”
It is all very alarming. But now let’s add a little bit of context.
A sober reappraisal
Firstly, I need to say that no one could accuse Biden of exaggerating the scale of the disaster or just how terrible it was. It was indeed catastrophic. However, I am prepared to be cynical enough to suggest that the sheer scale of the disaster is the feature that singles it out for the full climate change treatment. Only the avoidance of catastrophic events could possibly justify the pain to be experienced trying to achieve net zero, and justification is what this is all about. The Kentucky floods meet the first important criterion – they were horrendous. It is that fact that gives the juxtaposition of the opening two quotes its potency. The only weakness is the lack of a categorical connection, as it could only be ‘events like the Kentucky flooding’.
However, the weak connection is not something the BBC report is prepared to dwell upon. The important point to take home, apparently, is that this was an unprecedented flood. Except it wasn’t – and far from it. It’s all very well for ‘Folks who deal with this for a living, who have been doing it for 20 years’ to be sharing their experience but a proper perspective requires a much longer timescale. And if one looks far back enough, one fact becomes abundantly clear: Kentucky is notorious for its abundant precipitation and for suffering severe flash flooding. To quote the National Weather Service:
“Floods have been ravaging settlers in the Ohio and Tennessee valleys since they arrived.”
This was not an unprecedented flood but it was the worst since 1937. However, the important point is whether precipitation and flash flooding has gradually worsened since 1937, in the way Kentucky’s state geologist says had been predicted. This is the key connection that could justify linking the disaster to climate change. Unfortunately, this is where things become particularly problematic for the climate change narrative.
The awkward fact is that the state of Kentucky has not actually experienced any net warming since 1937 (a fate shared with the rest of south eastern USA). Whilst there has been some warming over recent years this has only compensated for a prolonged period of cooling, such that temperatures are now only just exceeding their 1930s levels. According to the NOAA:
“Temperatures in Kentucky have risen by 0.6°F, less than half of the warming for the contiguous United States, since the beginning of the 20th century, but the warmest consecutive 5-year interval was 2016–2020. Very warm temperatures occurred during the 1930s, followed by a substantial cooling of about 2°F in the 1960s. Since then, temperatures have risen about 3°F and have exceeded the highs of the 1930s. The hottest year on record was 1921, but two recent years, 2012 and 1998, rank second and third, respectively. Because of the cooling in the mid-20th century, the southeastern United States is one of the few regions globally that has experienced little to no overall warming since 1900.”
And when one focusses in on the numbers of extremely hot days, the picture remains broadly the same, as illustrated below:
Similarly with precipitation levels. Kentucky’s geography has always rendered it vulnerable to high precipitation, and the recent 10 year period of above average levels should be taken in its proper context, in as much as it follows on from a long and relatively stable period that was defying the predicted rises. The reality is that the rainfall event was anything but ‘extraordinary’ and current annual rainfall is not appreciably higher than the past. This can be seen by examining the full NOAA dataset from which the BBC report chose to cherry-pick. There is a very recent upward trend but not one that jumps out of the page:
The bottom line is that context is always important and never more so than for the recent Kentucky floods. The BBC report was written to alarm, and in that respect it succeeds admirably; a lot of people would have been woken up by it. However, a more sober and accurate reporting would have read as follows:
“Once again the long-suffering state of Kentucky has been struck down by yet another bout of prolonged and heavy rain resulting in flash flooding for which the state is notorious. If anything, climate change may have made the floods a little more severe than normal, though making such a connection would be problematic given that Kentucky and neighbouring states haven’t actually experienced any warming when viewed over the relevant timescales.”
Still want to spend those trillions on net zero?