Climate change and hurricanes

The complainant, Constantine Kritsonis, thought it was wrong when a meteorologist said climate change did not cause more hurricanes. The science is more nuanced than that - and she explained the ways climate change did have an impact. There was nothing false or misleading about her statement.

COMPLAINT

You thought CBC meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe had made an error in a piece on The National on September 11, 2018. You stated that when referring to Hurricane Florence she stated climate change does not cause more hurricanes or more intense hurricanes. You think this is false:

That is a dangerously false and misleading statement. In fact, the opposite is true. Simply ask your meteorologist. Global warming means more frequent and more intense weather related events.

You said that it is “common knowledge” that greater intensity is the reason behind the more destructive nature of hurricanes.

You also said that CBC News should not use the term “climate change,” which is the “corporate polluter preference,” but rather “global warming” which is “more clear and honest.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Dan Getz, Executive Producer of Network News, replied to your concerns. He clarified what Ms. Wagstaffe stated by supplying you with a transcript of her exchange with programme host Ian Hanomansing:

IAN HANOMANSING (HOST):

And Harvey, just one of the monstrous storms we have seen over the last couple of years. And a lot of people, Johanna, wondering about the relationship between climate change and these storms that we're seeing?

JOHANNA WAGSTAFFE (CBC NEWS):

Well, climate change doesn't mean more hurricanes or more intense hurricanes, but it does mean that the impacts are getting greater. And we know that for sure that climate change is leading to greater hurricane impacts. Higher water levels means higher storm surge. Warmer waters means storms can maintain their strength longer. And the atmosphere can hold more water. And finally, these blocking patterns that we're seeing more and more of are leading to these storms stalling out and just dumping enormous amounts of rain which is what, unfortunately, we will see with Florence.

He told you Ms. Wagstaffe shared the research which indicates that climate change does not lead to more hurricanes. She referenced information from the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL). He quoted from that document:

Through research, GFDL scientists have concluded that it is premature to attribute past changes in hurricane activity to greenhouse warming, although simulated hurricanes tend to be more intense in a warmer climate. Other climate changes related to greenhouse warming, such as increases in vertical wind shear over the Caribbean, lead to fewer yet more intense hurricanes in the GFDL model projections for the late 21st century. GFDL research on hurricanes and climate has been cited in several key assessment reports, including the WMO and IPCC assessments. Further investigation with more advanced models is needed for more confident projections of future hurricane activity in a warming climate

He noted that while she said there are not more hurricanes, she did link climate change to the impacts they have through storm surge, flooding, and blocking patterns.

He also shared CBC language guide on the usage of the terms “climate change” and “global warming:”

Climate change is a broad term that refers to established shifts in normal weather patterns, such as stronger or more frequent storms and higher or lower than seasonal temperatures. It can be gradual (over millions of years, based on scientific analysis of rock, glaciers, etc.), or comparatively more sudden (statistically measurable over mere decades). Global warming is one type of climate change. (Ice ages are another.) Shifts in the planet's temperature can be caused by natural phenomena, such as volcanic eruptions, or by air pollution, deforestation, etc. In modern times, global warming conventionally refers to a slow increase in the average temperature of the Earth's surface (air and water) closely monitored since the 1960s.

He added that this might not be your preferred terminology, but it is used because some thought has been given to a considered, reasonable approach.”

REVIEW

Mr. Getz has been very thorough in his response and there is not much more for me to add. There is nothing in the exchange between Mr. Hanomansing and Ms. Wagstaffe that refutes that the impact of hurricanes is increasing due to climate change. You quoted one phrase: “that climate change doesn't mean more hurricanes or more intense hurricanes.” The rest of that sentence is this:

… but it does mean that the impacts are getting greater. And we know that for sure that climate change is leading to greater hurricane impacts.

Ms. Wagstaffe is a trained meteorologist and is precise in her language, especially when talking about direct cause and effect. Indeed, Mr. Hanomansing introduced both the packaged story regarding the evacuation as Florence was making landfall, and his discussion with Ms. Wagstaffe like this:

Also, tonight: with the United States bracing for Florence, a monster of a storm, how climate change is making hurricanes worse.

I have also read over the reference to the GFDL document he provided you and it does not make a direct link. Ms. Wagstaffe clearly says climate change is having an impact - that is borne out reading this website. There is a section entitled: Global Warming and Hurricanes, an overview of current research results.” It is a scholarly approach and it notes while there are impacts - and that tropical cyclones will likely increase - the research is less clear about the Caribbean.

I appreciate you are concerned that climate change effects are not overlooked or misrepresented, but precision and accuracy are the hallmarks of journalism. That is what was reflected here. The same can be said about the use of the term “climate change.” The full language policy states that it is acceptable and appropriate to also use the term “global warming,” but explains why the term “climate change” might be more appropriate in certain circumstances. This is responsible journalism and no violation of policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman