New York Times Publishes a Searing Drought Story, But Completely Misses the Climate Change Angle

In Monday’s New York Times, Kim Severson and Kirk Johnson wrote an eloquent story on the intense drought that is maintaining a tight grip on a broad swath of America’s southern tier, from Arizona to Florida. Reporting from Georgia, Severson and Johnson detailed the plight of farmers struggling to make ends meet as the parched soil makes it nearly impossible for them to grow crops and feed livestock.

Monday's story from the New York Times on drought.

The piece is a great example of how emotionally moving storytelling from a local perspective can convey the consequences of broad issues and trends, in this case, a major drought that has enveloped 14 states. In that sense, it served Times readers extraordinarily well.

However, when it came to providing readers with a thorough understanding of the drought’s causes and aggravating factors, Severson and Johnson left out any mention of the elephant in the room — global climate change, and pinned the entire drought on one factor, La Niña. For this, it was overly simplistic, and even just downright inaccurate.

Here’s how the story framed the drought’s causes:

From a meteorological standpoint, the answer is fairly simple. “A strong La Niña shut off the southern pipeline of moisture,” said David Miskus, who monitors drought for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The La Niña “lone gunman” theory is problematic from a scientific standpoint. Just last week, Marty Hoerling, the federal government’s top researcher tasked with examining how climate change may be influencing extreme weather and climate events, told reporters that “we cannot reconcile it [the drought] with just the La Niña impact alone, at least not at this time.”

Instead, the causal factors are more nuanced than that, and they do include global warming, since it is changing the background conditions in which such extreme events occur.

During a press conference last week from a drought management meeting in the parched city of Austin, Texas, Hoerling made clear that climate change is already increasing average temperatures across the drought region, and is expected to lead to more frequent and intense droughts in the Southwest. Other research indicates the trend towards a drier Southwest is already taking place. “There are recent regional tendencies toward more severe droughts in the southwestern United States, parts of Canada and Alaska, and Mexico,” stated a 2008 report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

As is the case with any extreme weather or climate event now, one cannot truly separate climate change from the mix, considering that droughts, floods, and other extreme events now occur in an environment that has been profoundly altered by human emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide. This doesn’t mean that climate change is causing all of these extreme events, but it does mean that climate change may be increasing the likelihood that some types of events will occur, and may be changing the characteristics of some extreme events, such as by making heat waves more intense.

The fact that the Times story detailed both the drought and the record heat accompanying it, yet left out any mention of climate change, was a particularly puzzling error of omission. Hoerling, for one, pointed to the extreme heat seen during this drought as a possible sign of things to come, as climate change helps produce dangerous combinations of heat and drought.

“We haven’t necessarily dealt with drought and heat at the same time in such a persistent way, and that’s a new condition,” Hoerling said, noting that higher temperatures only hasten the drying of soils.

Many ponds in Texas, such as this one in Rusk County, were nearly dry by late June 2011. Credit: agrilifetoday/flickr.

Texas had its warmest June on record, for example, and on June 26th, Amarillo, Texas recorded its warmest temperature on record for any month, at 111°F. According to the Weather Channel, parts of Oklahoma and Texas have already exceeded their yearly average number of days at or above 100 degrees, including Oklahoma City, Dallas, and Austin. The heat is related to the drought, because when soil moisture is so low, more of the sun’s energy goes towards heating the air directly.

It’s unfortunate that the Times story, which was a searing portrayal of how a drought can impact communities that are already down on their luck due to economic troubles, did not include at least some discussion on climate change. As I've shown here, and climate blogger Joe Romm has also pointed out, there was sufficient evidence to justify raising the climate change topic in that story, and many others like it. After all, if the media doesn’t make an effort to evaluate the evidence on the links between extreme weather and climate change, then how can we expect the public to understand how global warming may affect their lives? 

At Climate Central, our scientists are working to better understand whether and how climate change is increasing the likelihood of certain extreme weather events, such as heat waves, while at the same time, our journalists are covering the Southern drought and wildfire situation with the goal of making sure our readers understand what scientific studies show about global warming and extreme events. 

This is not an easy task, but it need not be such a lonely one.

Update, July 13: The Times published an editorial on the drought today, which also blames the drought squarely on La Niña-related weather patterns, and makes no mention of climate change impacts or projections.