Meteorologist in a hurricane

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The climate of coverage: news media on climate consequences

Here’s an uncomfortable scene that has become familiar as part of hurricane news coverage over the last month or two. A pitiable news anchor in a soaked parka, clutching their microphone and barely able to stand, braving gale-force winds and driving rain in order to provide a dramatic establishing shot for the broadcast. News flash, America: the storm is coming.

Part of the role of good journalism is, of course, to tell stories that help readers and viewers draw the most useful lessons from current events in their proper context. For reporting on the disasters we faced this summer and early fall —air-choking wildfires, a record-breaking hurricane season, massive monsoon rains —there are particular stories that need to be told and lessons to be learned about the predictable consequences of human-caused climate change.

It has been heartening, then, to see that journalists and meteorologists are responding to this challenge more often. This year's coverage is more likely to connect the dots between weather disasters and the human activities that contribute to making them more numerous, more dangerous, and more likely to worsen in future years.  National outlets including ABC News, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and the New York Times all covered the impact of climate change on the growth of Western wildfires, as did many west coast papers, including the Seattle Times, Spokesman-Review, Oregonian, and LA Times.

Yet at the same time, the coverage has been uneven. The climate denial machine funded by fossil fuel companies is still creating a politicized environment for extreme weather and climate reportage, and ABC and NBC failed to discuss the climate context of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma for weeks.

Media coverage of climate change is so important because most Americans rarely hear or talk about it. A study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that while the majority of Americans are interested in global warming, only one in five talk about it at least once a month.  This “spiral of silence” makes it difficult to raise public awareness and amass the public will to solve the climate crisis. We need to acknowledge the problem and the impact it’s having, so we can build the conversation about how to solve it.

A recent Gallup poll found that a growing number of Americans believe not only that climate change is happening, but that it is caused by human activities and is already having an effect.  But most still don’t think it will pose a serious threat in their lifetimes or that they'll be personally impacted, despite the impacts we are already seeing, which are expected to rise in coming years. For example, wildfires in Oregon are expected to quadruple this century unless we change course to stabilize the climate. 

The media has a particular responsibility not only to acknowledge that climate change has an impact on weather-related disasters, but to explain that human activity has a causal relationship, provide context on the trends, and inform audiences about what we can do solve the climate crisis. 

One small but important step would be to stop calling these "natural" disasters. Disasters are anything but natural when we have created the threat to our own existence. Another idea, which Bill McKibben and others have suggested, is to name hurricanes for oil companies: Hurricanes Exxon and Shell rather than Harvey and Irma.  Better yet, reporters could do follow-up stories after they are done standing in gale force winds. We could see them standing in front of an oil refinery or a gas pipeline, reporting on how fossil fuel companies' recklessness is making extreme weather events more common and more dangerous.  

The media has been called the fourth pillar of democracy because of its essential role in protecting the public interest by informing us about injustices in our social, political, and economic systems. It’s hard to think of an injustice greater than the intentional disregard for the destabilization of society and our environment posed by the climate crisis. It’s time for the media—and for all of us—to treat it with the urgency it demands.

, Climate Solutions

Mara Gross is Climate Solutions' Oregon Communications Manager. Her bio is here.

Jonathan Lawson is Climate Solutions' Digital Communications Manager. His bio is here.