President George W. Bush is said to have quipped while in office that "I don't do nuance" -- a trait that today's hyperpartisan Washington, D.C., often appears to share. Democrats faced the challenge of communicating scientific nuance head-on this week when a devastating Oklahoma tornado raised the question of how to link climate change to extreme weather events, given the already thorny politics of disaster aid.
The trouble began Monday as a fatal, milewide tornado descended on Moore, Okla., during a regular floor speech on climate by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) that warned of "cyclones" poised to "tear up Oklahoma" and other red states while the GOP remained silent on the warming planet. Conservative media outlets blasted Whitehouse, whose office later apologized for the timing of the prewritten remarks.
But the Union of Concerned Scientists yesterday juxtaposed his words and a more direct tornado-climate link made by Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) with a column by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) that downplayed the effects of man-made emissions on temperature as well as storms.
"Scientists have gone to great pains to differentiate between extreme weather that can or cannot be definitively linked to climate change," UCS said in a statement. "Yet public and policymaker confusion about these connections abounds." The group also criticized New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) for neglecting to acknowledge the impact of rising greenhouse gases on sea-level rise that scientists credit with amplifying the damage caused by Superstorm Sandy last year.
Scientific consensus on climate change and extreme weather is visible, though painted more in gray than black and white. With the potential exception of heat waves and droughts, tying individual events to climate change is "really not possible," Massachusetts Institute of Technology meteorologist Kerry Emanuel said in an interview. "When [lawmakers] do that, they leave themselves very vulnerable to attack by other folks who don't believe in climate change or recognize that you can't make that connection very soundly. So I guess I'd prefer that they don't do that."
What can pass scientific muster, however, is stating that storm surge and intensity is expected to rise along with global temperatures, Emanuel added. Whitehouse made that case in an interview yesterday: "It's important that we try to avoid making a link with specific storms, because we can't really show that, but what we can show is that climate change loads the dice in favor of more severe storms."
Yet not every Democrat saw linking particular natural disasters to the climate as similarly risky. Asked about UCS's reaction to Whitehouse and Boxer, one Senate Democratic aide countered that a broad connection exists and that scientists continue to study the extent to which types of storms such as tornadoes can be tied to carbon emissions.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) also referred to the Oklahoma storm as a climate change consequence during debate on a GOP bill fast-tracking the Keystone XL oil pipeline. "Any rational person who doesn't want more Hurricane Sandys or more Oklahoma hurricanes would recognize that we must focus on developing renewable energy sources and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels," he said in a floor speech Wednesday.
Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, also vowed to keep drawing lines between traumatic weather and climate even when extreme events that he termed "the new normal" cannot be confirmed as "precisely due to greenhouse gases."
"It seems there is a connection, and we'd be prudent not to invite even more problems like these," Waxman said of "hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, floods" in an interview this week.
His Energy and Commerce panel colleague, Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), wondered whether Democrats' weather talk has helped marshal support for climate action.
"It hasn't worked so far. ... Nothing we're doing is working," Welch said in an interview this week. "There has to be some confidence that we can solve the problem in a way that builds the economy."
'Scientific quibbling ... should not be the center of conversation'
Using extreme weather as a means to engage the public in the climate problem began to gain momentum as a strategy in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, which walloped the East Coast in October and snared Congress in a clash over offsetting what ultimately became a $51 billion federal assistance package. Even before Sandy, climate communication researchers at Yale and George Washington universities had released studies showing that the share of Americans associating global warming with changing weather patterns was on the rise (Greenwire, Oct. 9, 2012).
"People are beginning to realize they are coming too fast, and many of them are unprecedented in their fury," Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) said of major storms. "It's the pattern."
In a political environment where potent images can win the day, weather-related devastation such as the post-Sandy footage that toplined the League of Conservation Voters' final presidential election ad last year also can make a compelling argument for climate activists to look to Mother Nature. Such appeals to emotion are understandable techniques to communicate the scale of massive issues like climate change, Emanuel of MIT explained, given that "anecdotes are much more powerful than statistics to the human psyche."
But even as weather events become a means to "prepare people's minds" for the onset of climatic shifts, Emanuel added, they also risk leaving people "accidentally conditioned" to blame greenhouse gases for all bad weather. During the 1980s, when research into the weather impacts of the El Niño phenomenon was on the rise, public awareness was so heightened that "pretty soon, if Grandmother had a toothache, it was El Niño," he joked.
In the case of Oklahoma, where the conservative political culture is already fueling a heated debate over lawmakers who opposed Sandy aid now seeking their own help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, linking the tornado to climate change amounts to layering emotion upon emotion. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) yesterday called rhetorical links between the Moore disaster and global warming "immoral" (Greenwire, May 23).
"They've lost their fight," Inhofe said of climate activists. "They just don't know it."
If Oklahoma officials seek federal aid beyond the $11 billion already in FEMA's coffers, lawmakers may yet have to make disaster-preparedness decisions that hold their own connection to planning for adaptation to a warmer world. Ceres spokesman Peyton Fleming, whose group represents institutional investors focused on sustainability, said framing the debate around preparedness made more sense than warnings of climate-induced weather.
"Scientific quibbling over whether climate change influenced this tornado should not be the center of the conversation right now," Fleming said. "It should be about looking at the hard facts of, how do you make risk-prone areas more resilient to future events that, in many cases, will be stronger in part due to climate change?"
Want to read more stories like this?
E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.
Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.