Tuesday, September 30, 2014

California drought and climate change: a science communication challenge

This week, a new report focused on extreme weather events and climate change came out in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. Since so much of my job involves filtering and sorting through this kind of information, particularly as it relates to California water issues, which right now are all drought all the time, I spent Monday watching a series of articles and tweets attempting to summarize that report come out. First was a link to the report itself. There was a lot of traffic (I'm assuming), so the report wouldn't load for me. At the same time, I started to see a lot of tweets about how we basically now know that the California drought is caused by climate change. Then as the afternoon went on came a series of tweets about how there is absolutely no measurable way that climate change caused the drought. Literally, two totally different headlines on the same topic within hours of each other. It was hard, even as somebody who is pretty well immersed in this stuff, to interpret the findings and figure out why the stories were so totally different.

This is where it gets interesting (at least for nerds like me). It turns out that in the overall report, there were three different approaches used by three different research teams to look at the links between the California drought and climate change as part of a much larger body of work on extreme events. And, lo and behold, two of the teams came to different conclusions than one of the others (some of the details of this were explained well in one of the earliest articles I read, from Justin Gillis at the NYT). Turns out, some journalists were focusing on the overall results from the larger report, which basically delivered a message that the causal linkages were weak to non-existent (see, for example, "California drought and climate warming: Studies find no clear link"), while some were reporting on the results of a single study from Stanford researchers that pointed to stronger causal linkages (see, for example, a press release from the National Science Foundation titled "Cause of California drought linked to climate change" on which many a news story followed). Apparently all the research teams agreed on the effects of the drought being worse due to climate change, but just to reiterate, there was disagreement on the causal linkages. At least that is what I can tell at this point.

As you can start to see, many of the challenges around communicating climate science, particularly as it relates to any single weather event or phenomena, and how best to explain to explain that relationship, are represented in this story. It is a microcosm of what has frequently happened: a consensus report is published showing where researchers present what they agreed upon, then the one paper (or researcher or research group) where there is some disagreement in a particular area (here: cause) gets its own bunch of media attention, and the words "cause" and "effect" and many others are used interchangeably when in this context they really can't be, etc. etc. Also, I will say that the 140 character limit of Twitter is SUPER not conducive to explaining this level of nuance. And, this is where the limits of messaging and framing and the like start to kick in, and the complexities of how information travels start to run the show. Not interpreting any of this as good or bad necessarily, just interesting and informative.

There have now been some really good articles coming out that are addressing the many complexities of interpreting these results. For example, Molly Samuel at KQED reports lead author of the Stanford study, Daniel Swain, as commenting "Nobody’s saying this event (California’s drought) was caused by climate change, period." That is a real shift from most of the early headlines, but I am still seeing a lot of "drought caused by climate change" tweets. We'll see how long they go on. By far my favorite tweet of the day though:

Update 10/3/14:
For those looking to really nerd out on California drought and climate change: two new stories parsing out the differences between these studies/results:

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