Climate change and hurricanes.

The complainant, Domenico Celli, thought CBC was deliberately lying when meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe pointed out some possible influence of climate change on hurricane Harvey. She was giving documented scientific information. She did not overstate the connection.

COMPLAINT

You objected to a comment made by meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe in a conversation with National guest host Susan Ormiston about Hurricane Harvey on the August 28th, 2017 edition of the programme. Ms. Ormiston had asked Ms. Wagstaffe if climate change could be a factor in the intensity of Harvey:

... the CBC weather lady stated that the intensity of the storm is due to the rise in global temperature when in fact there has been no rise in temperature for 20 years.

In addition to disagreeing with the temperature rise, you noted that you believe there is no consensus or proven data to support climate change, and that there are “opinions, but no scientific facts” about the change to the pattern of the jet stream.

You pointed out there have been other storms with a greater amount of rainfall, and that intense weather and flooding are common in the Houston area.

You characterized this segment as possibly “sloppy research by the National staff, but that it was more likely “willful lying for propaganda purposes.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Raj Ahluwalia, the acting executive producer of The National, replied to your concerns. He did not agree with the way you characterized what Ms. Wagstaffe said. He pointed out that when asked whether this event could be linked to climate change, she replied “we can’t take this entire event and connect it to climate change.” He also explained that she talked about aspects of the weather pattern that were influenced by climate change. She specifically mentioned that research is showing that the jet stream is stuck in place, holding the storm off the coast so that the system picks up more moisture.

He also told you that there is data that points to a rise in global temperature:

The fact is sixteen of the seventeen warmest years in the 136-year record all have occurred since 2001. That is indisputable. The source of that data is NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. (https://climate.nasa.gov/.) Other studies by some of the top scientists in the world have reached similar conclusions.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices requires that journalists “reflect a diversity of opinion”, and that the attention paid to various views takes “into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are.” You refute Mr. Ahluwalia’s statement that there is a consensus among climate change scientists that global warming is a reality. He provided you data from the Goddard Institute for Space Studies to show a trend toward warmer temperatures. Virtually every scientific agency and governments from the municipal to the federal level accept that climate change is a reality. You are free to reject the evidence. CBC is not obliged to alter its reporting or to provide alternate views; to do so would be to create false equivalence. That is why the policy refers to the relevance of the views. Not everything gets the same weight. Using professional judgment and expertise means that reporters synthesize and evaluate facts and information. I will not address your broader objections to climate change for the same reason.

As for the specifics of what Ms. Wagstaffe said, I agree with Mr. Ahluwalia that she was very precise in her answer:

SUSAN ORMISTON (GUEST HOST):

A lot of people have been asking is climate change a factor and how much here?

JOHANNA WAGSTAFFE: (METEOROLOGIST):

Well, we can't take this entire event and connect it to climate change. But part of the reason why Harvey has already been so devastating is because it's been forced to sit and spin off the coast and that in part is connected to these blocking systems to the north, including a big high-pressure system sitting right over British Columbia. And that's forced Harvey to sit in place, not allowing it to move forward or northward out of the hardest hit regions. More and more climate studies are connecting these blocked weather patterns with a jet stream that's getting stuck in place thanks to a warming climate. It's not moving weather systems forward in time. That's part of new research that climate change is looking at and that is the case with Harvey, again, being forced to sit off that coast and meandering in place until that high pressure ridge over B.C. Finally moves out on Wednesday night and that will finally allow Harvey to move inland and hopefully giving some relief for the second half of the week.

She explained the current science and what some of the possible connections were between the changing climate and the intensity of the storm. She did not imply or say the storm was caused by global warming. Her analysis is backed up by a range of research on the possible impacts of global warming on weather events like hurricanes. They point to another factor as well - these storms thrive on moisture, therefore the rise in ocean temperatures causes more evaporation, resulting in heavier rainfall. What Ms. Wagstaffe was pointing out was that the long duration of the storm could be affected by shifting patterns of the gulf stream. As she mentioned, research is beginning to show a link between climate change and the flow of the jet stream. One such study was published this spring. The work was done by a team at Penn State’s Earth System Science Center. She was using her professional judgment and knowledge to provide information. There was no violation of CBC policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman