As the United States is in the midst of two back-to-back monster hurricanes, and another two gaining strength in the Atlantic, now is the time for the media to talk about climate change. Unfortunately, most of the weather reporting surrounding hurricanes Harvey and Irma has failed to address what makes climate change a part of the bigger story. Shortcomings aside, it’s important to point out why the media isn’t entirely at fault.
There is little debate among scientists about how climate change affects the weather. Without getting deep into the weeds: climate change heats our global atmosphere, which heats ocean waters. Warm water is the essential fuel that drives large storms and hurricanes like Harvey and Irma. So, temperate waters result in rapidly intensifying storms. And that’s just one of the many ways climate change contributes to weather phenomena.
“There are certain climate change-related factors that we can, with great confidence, say worsened the flooding [in Houston],” writes Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann. “Harvey was almost certainly more intense than it would have been in the absence of human-caused warming, which means stronger winds, more wind damage and a larger storm surge.”
Obviously the most important part of a storm watch is informing viewers about weather conditions, explaining evacuation and preparation and relaying information from government officials. But in our 24-hour news cycle, it’s not impossible for outlets like CNN and NBC to take time to explain the implications of a warming planet. Any casual cable news viewer can tell you the storms were not contextualized with talk of manmade climate change in the coverage thus far.
— CNN International (@cnni) September 11, 2017
For the people of Texas, Louisiana and Florida who were affected by the storms, it’s time to ask some hard questions. Will this happen again? Is it sustainable to keeping living where I live? Is my community prepared for things to get worse?
And these questions extend to communities all along the eastern shore of the US and Mexico, including my home town on the Jersey shore that was ravaged by hurricane Sandy five years ago. It’s essential that the people of these areas, and the greater public, understand how human activities are making these storms worse. Therefore, it’s the responsibility of news and institutional sources of information to make the facts on climate change clear and accessible for their viewers (or constituents).
But the media is not really to blame for not always talking about climate change.
Through all of their hurricane coverage so far, the Weather Channel hasn’t once brought up climate change. Why is that?
“I believe in Climate Change and I believe it’s man made” said Weather Channel chief David Shull. “But I’m not a big fan of the term. It’s been politicized.”
— ABC News (@ABC) September 11, 2017
The problem isn’t that news outlets don’t want to report on climate change, it’s that they’re scared to. With the credibility of mainstream media and institutions on thin ice with most on the political right, reporters are afraid of alienating conservatives, and therefore they refrain from talking about it. They have a point too; talking about the issue could run the risk of turning off viewers who can’t afford to ignore essential storm coverage.
The only fix to this problem is changing the minds of climate skeptics. And that will never happen as long as they are encouraged by dangerous climate deniers like EPA head Scott Pruitt and the majority of Congressional Republicans who ignore the issue altogether.
— USA TODAY (@USATODAY) September 11, 2017
By misleading their supporters into climate denial, Republicans are not only encouraging ignorance, but they are setting dangerous standards that carry serious implications in our media environment. The devastation of Harvey and Irma show how reckless and irresponsible it is to ignore a broader conversation on climate.
The media should never be afraid to speak the truth, especially when it matters so so much.