Covering Climate Now

Climate coverage feels the heat, again

June 30, 2021

In recent days, extreme heat has baked swaths of the western part of North America. Portland, Oregon, recorded its highest ever temperature on Saturday, then again on Sunday, then again on Monday. Seattle repeatedly broke its own heat record. So did the nation of Canada; yesterday, Lytton, a village in British Columbia, was as hot as Death Valley. I tried to round up some more startling statistics and anecdotes to include here, but there are so many I couldn’t choose between them. In press coverage, headlines have used the word “unprecedented” a lot. Data teams have visualized the temperatures in striking charts and maps. Stories have spotlighted images of streetcar power cables melting and roads buckling; many others have featured images of people cooling off in fountains, or at the beach. Dr. Genevieve Guenther, the director of the group End Climate Silence, called the latter “a subtle form of climate denial.” She suggested that editors instead use images of emergency personnel helping heat-exposure victims.

The climate crisis is indeed making extreme heat worse, but—as is so often the case with coverage of weather events—news organizations haven’t uniformly done a great job of prominently communicating this context. Readers including Michael E. Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State, criticized as “irresponsible” a New York Times story that didn’t make the climate connection. (The article was subsequently updated; John Schwartz, a Times climate reporter, who didn’t write the story in question, acknowledged the climate omission, but called it “an increasingly rare occurrence” in the paper’s extreme-weather coverage.) Media Matters for America, a progressive watchdog group, reported that, over the weekend, broadcast and cable TV networks ran thirty-five segments on heat in the Pacific Northwest, only eight of which mentioned climate. ABC contributed half of these mentions, across eight segments; weekend news shows on PBS, NBC, and MSNBC each aired fewer segments and didn’t reference climate in any of them. Other stories have buried the climate connection near the bottom rather than foregrounding it.

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Some observers have aired another familiar gripe about the heat coverage: that if records were being smashed on the East Coast of the US, we’d be hearing a lot more about it—a function of a long-standing regional bias. (Temperatures are climbing in the east, but not to the same extent.) The situation in the west has been covered extensively by East Coast–based news organizations; to the extent that it hasn’t dominated the national news cycle, it’s had to compete with other worthy stories, not least the condo collapse in Surfside, Florida. Still, the heat is more important than some of the other stories—speculation about, and noises out of, Trumpworld, for instance—that have eaten up recent TV time. And plenty of coverage that could have referenced the heat prominently hasn’t done so. In recent days, much ink has been spilled on friction between President Biden and lawmakers from both parties with whom he has been negotiating infrastructure spending; climate is at the heart of that story, but you wouldn’t always know it. Among this week’s Sunday shows, NBC’s Meet the Press and ABC’s This Week each mentioned the word “infrastructure” nearly thirty times, without mentioning the extreme heat once. As Jennifer Rubin, a columnist at the Washington Post, put it Monday, “The gap between what the mainstream, D.C.-based media covers and what concerns ordinary Americans is never greater than when the media decides to hyperventilate over a process story.”

None of this is to say that recent climate coverage has been a monolith. Also on Sunday, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Mitt Romney, the Republican Utah senator, about the link between the climate crisis and drought (albeit not explicitly in the context of bipartisan infrastructure talks); on CBS, John Dickerson had a similar exchange with Jon Tester, the Democratic Montana senator. Stories from the local level to the international level have linked heat and infrastructure talks. On his MSNBC show Monday night, Chris Hayes linked not only heat, climate, and infrastructure, but also the condo collapse: “The way we generate energy, the way we use energy, and the way we harden ourselves against climate disaster so that, I dunno, streetcar cables don’t melt: those are the things at the center of infrastructure,” he said. “We are now entering an era in which the pressures on every built structure will be increased by the driving story of the century: the warming planet.” Last night, Hayes again criticized Biden for scaling back the climate portion of his bipartisan infrastructure deal in a testy interview with Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director. Bedingfield accused Hayes of selling Biden’s deal short; Hayes replied, “I’m just a cable news host. It’s the planet, and how much carbon it can take in the atmosphere, and the fact that we have hard targets we have to hit.” (Biden hopes to pass more climate-specific spending on a party-line basis. Whether and when that will happen is unclear.)

Again, this varied, but generally inadequate, coverage picture, and the debate around it, is a long-term phenomenon. Amid extreme heat earlier this month in Colorado, Chase Woodruff, a reporter with Colorado Newsline, analyzed nearly a hundred and fifty local stories and found that only six of them mentioned the climate crisis; sharing this data point in her climate newsletter, HEATED, Emily Atkin noted that “the systemic failure of news outlets to inform their readers about the climate crisis in real time is not new, nor exclusive to Colorado,” and blamed the phenomenon on an overabundance of journalistic caution in linking individual weather events to a broader context, and on fear of backlash. Atkin’s analysis itself drew some pushback: NPR’s climate editor suggested that Atkin’s reference to that outlet’s cautious approach in 2018 was outdated; a journalist in Colorado who wrote a heat story blamed stretched local-news resources for the omission of “nuance” about the climate. This is, for sure, a big problem. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that every climate oversight would be fixed merely by better funding for news: outlets that are currently well-resourced are guilty of them now, and some news organizations clearly fear that linking extreme weather to climate will alienate readers. Reporting by Corey Hutchins has shown that dynamic at work among rural publishers in Colorado. Even national outlets fear that factual climate coverage will come across as overly political. Some among them declined to sign a recent statement, coordinated by CJR and The Nation’s Covering Climate Now initiative, endorsing the phrase “climate emergency” on the grounds that it smacked of “activism.”

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Nor should we avoid broad criticisms of climate coverage for fear of upsetting individual outlets and reporters; almost everyone could do better, and too many powerful news organizations still routinely make bad mistakes to be able to call them all out individually. It would be great to get to the point where we can flip the exception and the norm—and, in recent years, it feels like we have moved closer toward it, with the urgency of climate coverage generally improving. But we aren’t there yet, and nothing underscores that fact more than the inadequate climate connection across prominent coverage of weather events. It might perhaps help all of us if we stop conceiving of extreme heat—and attendant droughts, fires, and so on—as discrete events in a single place or region, and cover it instead as an unbounded, global fact of life, focusing, as The Guardian’s Arwa Mahdawi suggested this morning, less on the unprecedented and more on the emerging precedent. There’s no way of telling that story without the climate crisis.

Below, more on climate coverage:

  • “All the right words have already been said”: Writing in her Substack newsletter this week, the journalist Sarah Miller, who has been experiencing high temperatures in Nevada City, California, recalled a recent conversation with an editor who suggested that Miller might write something about climate change, on the grounds that “fire season is coming up.” Miller replied that fire season is already here, and told the editor that she doesn’t have anything to say about climate change anymore, other than that it is making her miserable. “What kind of awareness quotient are we looking for?” Miller wrote. “What more about climate change does anyone need to know? What else is there to say?”
  • The condo collapse: Amid ongoing efforts to explain the Surfside condo collapse, Oliver Milman writes, for The Guardian, about the possible role of climate change in the disaster, “and whether the severe vulnerability of south Florida to the rising seas may lead to the destabilization of further buildings in the future”; experts told Milman that, in general terms, “the integrity of buildings will be threatened by the advance of salty water that pushes up from below to weaken foundations.” Chelsea Harvey, of E&E News, also assessed the question: “Experts say it’s exceedingly rare for a structure to become so unsafe without anyone noticing,” Harvey writes, “but a steady increase in coastal flooding can render whole communities gradually unlivable.”
  • Climate and weather: Last week, Sara Fischer and Andrew Freedman, of Axios, shared data comparing the time that cable channels have devoted to weather and climate, respectively, since 2017—the gap between the two has narrowed, but there’s still more coverage of weather. “Some network newscasts still lead their nightly broadcasts with reports of major weather disasters, without ever mentioning climate change’s role,” Fischer and Freedman note. They also mention a number of new initiatives across the media industry, including Covering Climate Now, that are working to narrow the gap.
  • On the subject of CCN: This morning, in collaboration with Covering Climate Now, The Guardian launched “Climate crimes,” a new series investigating the role of the fossil-fuel industry in the climate crisis. An unprecedented number of lawsuits filed by US states and cities argue that “fossil fuel companies should pay for the damage they have helped to cause to the planet.” The Guardian’s series “will examine these attempts to hold the industry accountable and investigate the tactics used by the companies to elide their own role in global heating. It will also interrogate the central question that emerges from these lawsuits: is the climate crisis a crime scene?”

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