As Climate Turns Deadly, Media Are Stuck in Denial
If you live in California, the effects of climate change loom large this summer. In Southern California, where I live, back-to-back heat waves have enveloped suburbs in triple-digit temperatures for weeks now. In Northern California, a fire that has burned more than 100,000 acres and claimed the lives of several people in Shasta County has been declared the seventh worst in the state’s history.
If it was only the Golden State experiencing such extreme events, we might consider the deadly heat an anomaly. But across the world, thermometers are bursting in a global heat wave spanning from Japan to Algeria, to Greece, the U.K. and everywhere in between. This year is on pace to be among the four hottest years on record. The other three were 2017, 2016 and 2015. There can be no clearer indication that global warming—the predictable outcome of excessive fossil fuel consumption—is a reality, just as scientists have predicted for decades that it would be.
But you wouldn’t know it from most corporate media reports. While there is adequate coverage of heat waves and their effects on people and the environment, only a small percentage of media outlets link the heat to climate change. The watchdog group Public Citizen released a report last week titled “Extreme Silence: How the U.S. Media Have Failed to Connect Climate Change to Extreme Heat in 2018.” It examined media coverage by national and local newspapers, as well as TV networks, between Jan. 1 and July 8 and found that only a small percentage of stories covering extreme temperatures explicitly mentioned climate change. Researchers concluded that “major U.S. media outlets are largely failing to connect these monumental weather events to climate change.” Worse, the report “finds that media were significantly less likely to connect extreme heat to climate change when reporting during a major heat event.”
In an interview with me about this troubling trend, 350.org communications manager Thanu Yakupityage observed, “People are dying. We’re not talking a few people—we’re talking tens of hundreds, of thousands of people who will continue to be affected every year while the media stays silent.”
On Twitter, MSNBC host Chris Hayes offered one explanation for the media’s poor job of covering climate change recently, saying, “Almost without exception, every single time we’ve covered it’s been a palpable ratings killer. [S]o the incentives are not great.” Yakupityage, who told me she was once in a room with Hayes when he said something similar, responded: “If the media is not covering climate change, they’re also not giving people the information they need on how to protect themselves.” In other words, media outlets are betraying the public trust by failing to inform us.
It is tempting to take a head-in-the-sand approach to climate change because it is such a daunting issue for which there seems to be no political will to do what is needed. Books have been written about the human psychological response to climate change. Although the solution for tackling it is obvious—dramatically reduce fossil fuel consumption—moneyed interests and political inaction preserving the status quo give ordinary people the sense that it is an insurmountable problem. As new temperature records are broken each year, we are inexplicably moving toward more fossil fuel consumption rather than less. And there seems to be little we can do to stop this trend.
President Donald Trump, in particular, has added fuel to the fire burning our planet through numerous actions, arguably the worst of which was withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. Recently, his administration offered a perverse argument to justify its freezing of gas-mileage standards in cars: More fuel-efficient cars would encourage more people to drive, which would endanger more lives by increasing car accidents. According to The Associated Press, the government “contends that freezing the mileage requirements at 2020 levels would save up to 1,000 lives per year.” In Trump’s world, global warming poses no real danger. It is no wonder that so many Americans who see the effects of climate change feel powerless.
Another part of the problem with our mass denial about climate change is that we hear constant qualifications in the reporting of extreme weather. Google the phrases “while no single” and “climate change” and you will see a large number of publications that include some variant of the phrase (this one is from a recent USA Today article): “while no single event can be attributed to human-induced climate change. … ” It may be more scientifically accurate to qualify climate coverage of extreme weather patterns, but it is unnecessary to use such language in reports aimed at the layperson. Such language dilutes the soundness of climate science, on which there is overwhelming consensus. It is a concession to climate denialists, who took a page from the tobacco industry’s strategy to successfully sow enough doubt about climate science to coerce journalists and climate scientists into being overly careful when making claims.
Readers of reports who refuse to definitively connect scorching temperatures to climate change might be less likely to take the long-term threat seriously. There is rarely this much rigor in contemporary media coverage of the cause-and-effect aspect of lung cancer’s connection to smoking, for instance. But when it comes to the most important existential crisis of our time, reporters appear to bend over backward to qualify every connection between extreme weather and climate change.
What every person on this planet needs to read and hear about is a clear identification of the climate culprit. In Yakupityage’s words, “The root of the problem is fossil fuels. The root of the problem is our burning of coal, gas and other fossil fuels. If we as a global community can stop [burning] fossil fuels, we can help to reduce the impact of the climate crisis greatly.”
In the meantime, the media also need to focus on resiliency and adaptation to a changing climate. This is not an acceptance of defeat—it is a practical approach. Talking about resiliency and adaptation can save lives while keeping alive the conversation about reducing fossil fuels in the long term. The alternative is to pretend nobody knows why the planet is getting hotter, why there are more deadly wildfires and hurricanes and why there are more record-breaking heat waves every summer.
The deadly effects of climate change are being broadcast all across our lands in fierce flames and blistering heat. Next it will come in the form of superstorms, submerged coastal areas and other disasters. Here in the U.S., we won’t hear much about any of these alarm bells from politicians eager to retain their seats in Congress this November.
Ultimately, political action from the bottom up is what has always led change. To that end, there is a promising lawsuit that rightly targets the government for endangering the future of our children. The Supreme Court on Monday gave the green light to a case being brought by a number of young Americans, aged 11 to 22, against the government over inaction on climate change. The suit was first launched against the Obama administration three years ago and has slowly wound its way through the legal system, even as the effects of human-created climate change multiply around us.
On the activist front, people worldwide are expected to protest climate inaction on Sept. 8. On the website riseforclimate.org, organizers say, “No more stalling, no more delays: it’s time for a fast and fair transition to 100% renewable energy for all.” The fate of our species depends on how loudly we raise our voices and force the issue of climate change onto center stage.