Heat Waves and Climate Change: Mass Media Fails to Make the Connection

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The failure to link the increasing frequency and intensity of heat waves means that the general population remains relatively unaware of the urgency of climate change, says Jennifer Marlon of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

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Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network and I’m Greg Wilpert. Over one hundred twenty million people in the United States, over a third of the U.S. population, saw temperatures climb above ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit during the past week. For those who are unfamiliar with Fahrenheit, that is 35 degrees Centigrade. About half of those, sixty million, are being warned by the National Weather Service to take precautions. In a time when the U.S. president likes to point to the weather as evidence that there is no global warming, it makes sense to take a scientific look at the matter.

What is the link between heat waves and global warming, and do heat waves and other extreme weather conditions, such as hurricanes, increase the population’s awareness of climate change? Joining me to address these issues is Jennifer Marlon. Jennifer is a research scientist working with the Yale Program on Climate Change and Communication. Her research focuses on the social and physical dimensions of climate change, particularly extreme weather events and past climate changes. Thanks for joining us today, Jennifer.

JENNIFER MARLON: Thanks for having me.

GREG WILPERT: So, let’s start with the current heat wave. It’s been said that it’s being caused by a heat dome. First of all, what is a heat dome?

JENNIFER MARLON: A heat dome is, for our purposes, really just an area of high temperature that’s covering a very widespread part of the country. It’s caused by a high, a ridge of atmospheric pressure that’s just causing hot, warm, hot and warm sunny clear days, which make it very uncomfortable on the ground.

GREG WILPERT: So, then what is the relationship between climate change and the increase in record breaking heat waves such as this one?

JENNIFER MARLON: Well, climate change is warming global temperatures on average, but that means that a typical heat wave is going to happen more frequently. The temperatures might climb a little higher, heat waves may increase in duration or they may affect broader areas. And so, as the temperatures are warming overall around the whole planet, you’re just more likely to get events like this and more people are going to be experiencing the negative health impacts, in particular, of heat waves.

GREG WILPERT: So, your research for the Yale Center for Climate Change has focused on extreme weather. I understand you recently also conducted a study on the perception of Americans on the risks of heat waves. What types of risks are associated with heat waves and do Americans understand the relationship between climate and heat waves?

JENNIFER MARLON: Yeah, that’s a good question because when these kinds of events happen, whether it’s a heat wave or a hurricane or a wildfire, people tend to focus on the event as it is happening and so does the media, of course, which is normal. But what we don’t do is connect these events to climate change, and climate change is making many of these events worse. For heat waves, they tend- since they don’t affect physical infrastructure like buildings, for example, as dramatically and obviously as a flood or hurricane might, heat waves- the risk is really about our human health, and especially children, the elderly, pets and vulnerable populations living in dense urban areas, for example, especially in areas with high poverty, because you’re less likely to have air conditioning, for example.

GREG WILPERT: So, according to the publication of, Pacific Standard, they wrote “Some of the poorest people in the U.S. end up spending more than fifty percent of their income on energy over the course of the year.” So, how would you or how can you communicate to working class people, who have this burden, the issues of climate change for these kinds of situations when they suffer under these conditions?

JENNIFER MARLON: Yeah, it is very difficult. We just conducted a large national study in the U.S. where we surveyed ten thousand Americans all across the country to try to understand, how do they feel and what are they- are they worried about heat wave events in particular? And interestingly, people are generally not very worried. So, on a scale of about one to ten, the average people will rank it as about a four on a scale of one to ten. So, we’re not taking it very seriously. But what we don’t realize is that heat is actually the number one killer of all weather related events in the U.S., and it’s especially when a heat wave happens early in the season, like we’re still relatively early in the summer right now. And when the heat continues for more than two days, once you get into day three or four, it’s very dangerous for health because your body doesn’t have a chance to cool off.

And if the nighttime temperatures don’t drop, then you can’t recover during the night. And so, pretty soon you can be facing heat exhaustion, heat stress, and it becomes really dangerous to human health. And so, it’s not just sort of feeling uncomfortable. It also has economic impacts, and those are going to hit the low income and most vulnerable populations more if they can’t make it to work, for example. And especially if we get power outages when you get intense heat for long periods of time, you have more possibility of disrupted power supply. In 1995, for example, over five hundred people died in Chicago because of a long, intense heat wave. So, it can be quite damaging if these events were to continue like this and to become worse.

GREG WILPERT: So, just how many people are actually concerned and able to relate the heat waves and extreme weather conditions to climate change?

JENNIFER MARLON: Very, it’s surprisingly- you would think that as we start feeling these effects of climate change more acutely that we would become more concerned. But the research suggests, and my research as well as many others in the field suggests, that actually these events don’t cause people to become more concerned about climate change unless they’re already concerned. So, if you’re not worried about this problem, a heat wave is not going to make you more worried. And yet, we know that these kinds of events are very consistent with what we expect to be happening with climate change.

So, it’s important for the media to help connect the dots and help people understand that these events are related to carbon pollution in the atmosphere. And so, while during the day you have to take individual level actions to protect yourself and check on your neighbors and drink water and wear loose clothing and find cooling centers, for example, it’s also important to think about more structural and political changes that have to happen at institutional and state and federal levels to deal with the underlying problem of climate change, which has to be focused on reducing carbon emissions because that’s what’s making these problems worse.

GREG WILPERT: Yes, well certainly related to that is also the fact that many people will crank up their air conditioning, of course, to deal with the heat. But as long as fossil fuels are generating electricity for air conditioning, it seems like we’re combating heat with more heat, in effect. What basically needs to be done to stop this kind of a cycle?

JENNIFER MARLON: Yeah, that is an unfortunate, unfortunate impact. That is exactly what’s happening. And the question is, what is running the electricity, what are we using to produce the electricity that is needed to run those air conditioners? Because you do need to run it when the temperatures get this high. But are those air conditioners going to be powered by diesel, for example, as they are in many developing countries, or are we going to promote and support the expansion of renewable, sustainable energy sources that can power those air conditioning units? Because we need it, and more and more people have it and need to use them. And so, the question is, just where are we getting our energy from? And that becomes a government issue.

GREG WILPERT: Okay. Well, we’re going to leave it there for now. But of course, we continue to follow the climate issue. I was speaking to Jennifer Marlon, research scientist at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Thanks for having joined us today, Jennifer.

JENNIFER MARLON: Thanks very much.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network. Also, I want to remind people that we recently started our summer fundraiser and need your help to reach our goal of raising two hundred thousand dollars. Every dollar that you donate will be matched. Please do what you can today.