The Media Today

Yes, Hurricane Michael is a climate change story

October 12, 2018

The ferocity of Hurricane Michael came into view on Thursday as images of devastation filtered out of the Florida panhandle. Stories on the storm’s trail of ruin appear on the front pages of today’s New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. In a helicopter above Mexico Beach, Florida, CNN’s Brooke Baldwin captured footage of a city flattened by Michael’s powerful winds.

Reports on the immediate aftermath are vital to understanding the storm’s impact, but all of those mentioned above failed to include any mention of climate change. This is particularly disappointing because, just days before Michael made landfall, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report with a dismal assessment of current global conditions and a warning that the future, soon approaching, is much more dire than previously feared.

Climate scientists are cautious not to directly link rising sea levels and warming temperatures to any individual storm, but a basic theory holds: warmer water and air, along with rising sea levels, will lead to storms of greater intensity. Even though a straight line between climate change and Michael cannot yet be drawn (researchers will later be able to model the actual intensity of the storm compared to computer generated models), coverage of major storms that fails to address profound environmental problems fails to provide audiences with a full picture.

ICYMI: Which one of these three types of journalists are you? 

As our understanding of the impact of climate change expands, some journalists have taken up the challenge of bringing the topic into the discussion of storms like Michael. “Hurricane Michael isn’t a truly ‘natural disaster,’ John D. Sutter, a CNN investigative reporter, wrote. “Neither was Harvey in Houston. Nor Maria in Puerto Rico. Yet we continue to use that term. Doing so—especially in the era of climate change—is misleading if not dangerous.” In Thursday’s Times, Henry Fountain, a climate reporter, explained the “triple threat from climate change: more rain in larger storms on rising seas.The Atlantic’s Robertson Meyer explained how Michael’s sudden growth could be tied to rising sea levels and warming waters, writing that “scientists won’t formally know whether climate change played a role in Michael’s rapid intensification for several months. But local weather experts have already said Michael is exactly what they would expect to see in a climate-changed world.

Writing on the UN report, the Post’s Margaret Sullivan argued that “when it comes to climate change, we—the media, the public, the world—need radical transformation, and we need it now.” That transformation could include reporting on climate changes impact on any number of issues, from the economy to immigration to warfare. With the country focused on coverage of Michael’s destruction, the opportunity to bring climate change into the discussion is there for the taking, and it shouldn’t be ignored.

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Below, more on coverage of Hurricane Michael and our changing climate.


Other notable stories:

  • While we’re on the subject of stories that deserve more visibility, Flint residents are still lining up for cases of bottled water. The New York Times’s Astead W. Herndon reports from the city, where jaded residents are skeptical about both major party candidates in Michigan’s gubernatorial race.
  • A quartet of WaPo journalists has the latest on the investigation into Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance and reported murder. “The Turkish government has told US officials that it has audio and video recordings that prove Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul this month,” report Shane Harris, Souad Mekhennet, John Hudson, and Anne Gearan.
  • Newsweek’s parent company pleaded not guilty to fraud charges brought by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. “The 10-count indictment unsealed Wednesday in Manhattan Supreme Court names as defendants IBT Media and its co-founder, Etienne Uzac; Christian Media and its former chief executive and publisher, William Anderson,” report The Wall Street Journal’s Lukas I. Alpert and Rebecca Davis O’Brien. Uzac defended himself in a Twitter post Thursday, claiming that he was being targeted for critical reporting on Manhattan DA Cy Vance Jr.
  • Civil Media, the independent media startup powered by blockchain technology and cryptocurrency, is falling short of its initial fundraising goals, reports the WSJ. For CJR, Mathew Ingram considers what happens if Civil’s token financing simply doesn’t work?
  • Stephen Elliott, one of the men named in the “Shitty Media Men” list is suing the spreadsheet’s creator, Moira Donegan. Elliott is seeking at least $1.5 million in damages. The Cut’s Ruth Spencer reports that “Elliott has acquired attorney Andrew Miltenberg of Nesenoff & Mittenberg LLP, a high-profile lawyer who has made a name for himself defending men accused of sexual assault, and advocating for the roll-back of Title IX protections.”
  • The Hollywood Reporter’s Marisa Guthrie profiles Fox News’s Martha MacCallum, who earned positive reviews for her questioning of Brett Kavanaugh during the Supreme Court Justice’s only sit-down interview in the days leading up to his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

ICYMI: If the president writes it, should USA Today publish?

Correction: an earlier version of this story referred inaccurately to Mexico Beach, Florida, as Mexico City.

Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.