Sorry, Mainstream Media, Climate Change Is Not Responsible for the Recent Heatwave

As a Google News search of the term “climate change,” shows, the mainstream media is abuzz with claims made by a group of researchers that human-caused climate change was the cause of the recent extreme heatwave that struck the Northwestern United States in early July. This claim is false.

As the stories themselves acknowledge, similar high temperature events occurred in the past, long before humans began emitting significant amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. In addition, data show the heat wave was a weather event, for which long-term climate change can’t have been a factor.

The BBC and the Spokane Spokesman-Review, among other media outlets, hyped research from World Weather Attribution (WWA), claiming the Pacific Northwest’s 2021 heatwave was the result of human-caused climate change.

A CBS News article, titled “Pacific Northwest heat wave would have been “virtually impossible” without climate change, experts say,” was typical of the mainstream media’s uncritical coverage of WWA’s research.

“Just a week ago, the Pacific Northwest — a place normally known for its cool and wet climate — endured the most extraordinary heat wave ever observed there in modern times,” writes CBS News. “The extremity of the heat wasn’t just unusual — it would have been ‘virtually impossible without human-caused climate change,’ according to a new analysis by 27 climate scientists from the World Weather Attribution network.”

What’s “virtually impossible” is to produce a peer reviewed study less than a week after an extreme and unexpected event “proving” almost anything about it.

Of course, the research was not peer reviewed and was not published in a peer reviewed journal. Rather it was self-published by WWA, an organization formed in 2014 in particular to, in its own words, establish that the “emerging science of extreme event attribution could be operationalised.” In other words WWA is a self-appointed group of scientists committed to the theory that humans are causing dangerous climate change, who believe through the use of a crystal ball, sorry, computer models, they can establish particular extreme weather events would not have happened absent a modest global average warming of about 1 degree Celsius.

Previously the organization produced non-peer reviewed studies claiming individual instances of extreme cold, drought, and rainfall events would not have happened absent global warming. In fact, no actual data proves any particular weather event is due to or even more likely to have occurred as a result of human caused global warming.

Data assembled by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panels on Climate Change (IPCC) and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration presented at Climate at a Glance show, extreme instances of cold, drought, or floods have not increased in number or severity amidst the modest warming of the past 150 years. If extremes are not getting more extreme, how can one attribute a particular extreme event to human-caused global warming, as opposed to the natural factors that caused such events in throughout history? The honest answer is, one can’t.

WWA itself called the heat event in the Northwestern United States a 1-in-1,000-year event, meaning, although it is rare, it has occurred many times before in the earth’s history without any human influence.

As my colleague at The Heartland Institute, award-winning meteorologist Anthony Watts recently pointed out in a Climate Realism post, titled “Heatwave Reporting Illustrates How Science Has Been Corrupted with Climate Groupthink,” data show us that more high temperature records were set during the first half of the twentieth century than during the past 50 years. Even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirms this.

During the recent heatwave temperatures exceed the norm for the area by more than 20 degrees in some locations, far above the 1 to 2 degree temperature rise attributed by some scientists to human greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, though it was largely ignored by the mainstream media, the recent heat event in the Northwest was followed by a record setting drop in temperatures, as much as 52 degrees in some location, as the heat dome moved eastward.

Weather is not climate. NOAA writes,

“Weather reflects short-term conditions of the atmosphere while climate is the average daily weather for an extended period of time at a certain location. … Weather can change from minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour, day-to-day, and season-to-season.”

As Watts notes,

“[w]hen record heat and record cooling both happen within a 24-hour period, that’s inarguably weather, not climate.”

Watt’s analysis was confirmed by University of Washington Professor Cliff Mass who wrote in his own analysis of the heatwave:

“[T]here has been a substantial amount of miscommunication and unscientific handwaving about the recent Northwest heatwave. [g]lobal warming only contributed a small about (1-2F) of the 30-40F heatwave and that proposed global warming amplification mechanisms (e.g., droughts, enhanced ridging/high pressure) cannot explain the severe heat event. … [H]igh-resolution climate models do not produce more extreme high temperatures under the modest global warming of the past several decades and that global warming may even work against extreme warming in our region. Importantly, this blog demonstrates that there is no trend towards more high-temperature records.”

Extreme event attribution, is pure speculation: sideshow fortune telling given the veneer of scientific legitimacy by referencing computer model projections. In the case of the Northwest heatwave, evidence indicates it is woefully, scientifically unjustified speculation at that.

Astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan once said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Extreme event attributions are the epitome of extraordinary claims and the mainstream media should treat them as such.

Rather than simply parroting the scary claims made in a press release from climate alarmists, CBS News and other media outlets should require that those claiming an extreme weather event has been caused by human actions to provide solid evidence their claims are true. Neither CBS nor any of the other outlets promoting WWA’s unproven claims required such evidence. Shame on them.


H. Sterling Burnett
H. Sterling Burnett
H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., is the Director of the Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy and the managing editor of Environment & Climate News. In addition to directing The Heartland Institute's Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy, Burett puts Environment & Climate News together, is the editor of Heartland's Climate Change Weekly email, and the host of the Environment & Climate News Podcast.

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