NYTimes Claims Western Heat Wave Caused by Climate Change Based on ‘Rapid Attribution’ Study

Seattle heat wave (Jason Redmond / Getty)
Jason Redmond / Getty

The New York Times claimed Wednesday that the recent heatwave in the western U.S. was caused by climate change, citing a “rapid attribution” that has not been peer-reviewed, and downplaying the uncertainty expressed by scientists about the causal link.

The Times reported in an article titled “Climate Change Drove Western Heat Wave’s Extreme Records, Analysis Finds”:

The extraordinary heat wave that scorched the Pacific Northwest last week would almost certainly not have occurred without global warming, an international team of climate researchers said Wednesday.

“Although it was a rare event, it would have been virtually impossible without climate change,” said Geert Jan van Oldenborgh of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, who conducted the study with 26 other scientists, part of a collaborative group called World Weather Attribution.

The study is the latest in a growing body of research termed “rapid attribution” analysis, which aims to establish if there is a link between climate change and specific extreme events like heat waves, heavy rain storms and flooding. The goal is to publicize any climate connection quickly, in part to thwart climate denialists who might claim that global warming had no impact on a particular event.

The study, which took a little more than a week, is not yet peer-reviewed or published in a scientific journal. But it uses techniques that have been peer-reviewed before over the decade that these kinds of studies have been done. World Weather Attribution itself has completed about 30 of them since 2015.

The idea that “global warming had no impact on a particular event” is not “climate denialism.” Rather, it is a scientific (null) hypothesis that specifically presumes the earth is getting warmer. The Times reverses the burden of proof: rather than seeking to show that an event is caused by climate change, scientists must now presume it was, or be “denialists.”

“Attribution” analysis is specifically criticized by former Obama administration climate scientist Steven E. Koonin in his new book, Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters.

Koonin, who believes that human activity is influencing climate change, but is critical of the way climate data are presented to the public, writes in a chapter called “Hyping the Heat” that “there are high levels of uncertainty in detecting trends in extreme weather. He adds:

There are many reasons for science’s generally low confidence in detecting changes in extreme weather events and then attributing them to human influences, all of which we’ve discussed earlier: short and low-quality historical records, high natural variability, confounding natural influences, and disagreements among the many models used. Yet even though we’ve little evidence of much changing, the media maintains a flow of “news” connecting weather events to climate — in part, by relying on what are called “event attribution students,” which have become a growing branch of climate science.

As might be expected, attribution studies almost always focus on weather disasters, not benign weather occurrences.

Practitioners argue that event attribution studies are the best climate science can do in terms of connecting weather to changes in climate. But as a physical scientist, I’m appalled that such studies are given credence, much less media coverage. A hallmark of science is that conclusions get tested against observations. But that’s virtually impossible for weather attribution studies. Its like a spiritual adviser who claims he influence helped you win the lottery — after you’ve already won it.

The bottom line is that the science says that most extreme weather events show no long-term trends that can be attributed to human influences on the climate. (What models might project for future extremes is quite a different matter, though its often conflated with what the observational record shows.) Yet the popular perception that extreme events are becoming more common and more severe remains.

Koonin goes on to argue that the science says that record-breaking heat is not becoming more common in the U.S. as a result of climate change: rather, record-breaking cold is becoming less frequent as the planet warms: “The record highs clearly show the warm 1930s, but there is no significant trend over the 120 years of observation [in the U.S.], or even since 1980, when human influences on the climate grew strongly. In contrast, the number of daily cold temperatures decline over more than a century, with that trend accelerating after 1985.”

He summarizes (emphasis removed): “There have been some changes in temperature extremes across the contiguous United States. The annual number of high temperature records set shows no significant trend over the past century nor over the past forty years, but the annual number of record cold nights has declined since 1895, somewhat more rapidly in the past thirty years.”

In the middle of the Times article, the scientist responsible for the “rapid attribution” study stresses that his theory of heat waves is only a “hypothesis,” and that climate scientists are less certain, not more certain, about how heat waves behave.

But that more balanced assessment is not reflected in the article’s headline — “Climate Change Drove Western Heat Wave’s Extreme Records, Analysis Finds.”

Koonin notes that much climate journalism happens this way: sensational headlines that drive news, clicks, and traffic, followed by more careful analysis buried deep within the article.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News and the host of Breitbart News Sunday on Sirius XM Patriot on Sunday evenings from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. PT). His new novel, Joubert Park, tells the story of a Jewish family in South Africa at the dawn of the apartheid era. His recent book, RED NOVEMBER, recounts the 2020 Democratic presidential primary from a conservative perspective. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.


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