Mass Media Fail to Link Heat Waves and Climate Change

The Aggie Creek Fire near Fairbanks, Alaska, on July 7, 2015.
Credit: Philip Spor

Even though studies show that human-caused climate change is doubling the likelihood of heat waves, major news outlets consistently fail to make the link, which makes dealing with the problem far more difficult than it should be

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

Heat waves and forest fires are affecting large parts of the Northern Hemisphere this summer. Buildings and roads in Britain are melting. In Japan at least 116 people have died of a heatwave in the month of July. And here in the United States we have had the hottest month of May and the third-hottest month of June since record keeping began. Temperatures in Algeria reached 124 degrees Fahrenheit, a record for the African continent. The forest fires are raging in California, Greece, Russia, and Scandinavia.

While this extreme heat makes for interesting weather reports, major news outlets rarely even mention the connection between global warming and the heat waves. For example, a Media Matters study found that only 1 in 127 segments or weathercasts on ABC, CBS, and NBC mentioned climate change only once in their reporting on the June to July heat waves in the U.S.

Joining me now to discuss the link between climate change, heatwaves, and the public perception is Dawn Stover. Dawn is a contributing editor at The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. She is a science writer based in the Pacific Northwest whose work has appeared in many significant scientific publications, as well as publications such as The New York Times. Dawn, I thank you so much for joining us today.

DAWN STOVER: Good to be here.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Dawn, let’s start with the science behind climate change and heatwaves. And particularly, you know, is this period that we’re experiencing now anything unique?

DAWN STOVER: It is unique in the sense that right now what we’re seeing is heatwaves and wildfires and other weather extremes on steroids. We’ve always had heatwaves in the past. We’ve had big fires. But what climate change does is it increases the chances of these events happening, and of them being more intense. And so it’s difficult to pin any one specific event on climate change, per se. What we do know is that when we see these extreme things happening, that’s exactly what scientists predict does happen with climate change.

SHARMINI PERIES: And how strong is the link between global warming and these heatwaves? And do you feel that the public is understanding the connection the way it should?

DAWN STOVER: The link just keeps getting stronger all the time. There have been some great peer-reviewed studies published over the last few years that have linked specific heat waves to climate. And in fact, in this most recent heatwave, at least for Northern Europe, there was a study that just came out that showed that climate change made that heatwave twice as likely to happen. So it’s getting easier and easier to see the fingerprints of climate change all over these events.

But that isn’t coming through in the reporting. These studies that I’ve written about for the Bulletin have looked at the coverage that is happening during heatwaves, and find that it’s not just TV stations, it’s also big newspapers. And even newspapers in the states that are experiencing the record-breaking heat here in the United States are not making the connection. They’re doing reporting on heat, but they’re not talking about climate. In fact, one study that just came out from Public Citizen on Friday showed that the number of stories that are mentioning climate during heatwaves actually goes down. So the reporting is even worse when the heatwave is happening.

And I see this as just a huge media fail. I mean, there’s a reason why a lot of people are not aware of the urgency of this problem and the fact that it’s happening right now and the personal threat to them, and that’s because they don’t hear that on the news on a regular basis.

SHARMINI PERIES: And why do you think that’s taking place?

DAWN STOVER: Why is it not being covered on the news? I think some people would say that the people just don’t care. It’s not good for ratings. I think what you’re seeing is a lot of journalists themselves may not be interested in this topic. They view it as something that should be set aside just for maybe environmental journalists or science journalists to cover, rather than as the major story that it is in terms of politics, business, health, everything. Climate change is air pollution, basically. But it’s being reported as if it’s sort of a political third rail that journalists are afraid to touch.

SHARMINI PERIES: And does that have to do with who owns the media and the conflicting interests that its ownership might have with reporting on climate change? Mainly the fossil fuel industry, and interests that they may have in terms of who owns the media, our media?

I think that’s part of it. I mean, definitely these are for-profit news businesses, and they are sensitive to, you know, what happens in the business world and to criticisms they may get from people in their audience who have business interests there. And I think they’re also shy about reporting on topics that may stir the political sentiments within some of their audience.

But I really think it’s more than just that, because journalists do report on a lot of other topics that are sensitive and politically polarized they’re just not reporting on climate as the story that it is. In my view it’s really the biggest story of the century. It’s literally changing life as we know it.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now, just this week the MIT published a new study that says large parts of China, including some of the most populous areas on earth, could become uninhabitable in the next 50 to 60 years due to heatwaves that would take place, I guess, mostly in the summer months. What do we know about that timeframe, and potential for unhabitability around the world? Do you, do you study the, sort of the patterns, and to what degree we need to be worried about this?

DAWN STOVER: I think it’s difficult to say exactly when that will happen because already we’re seeing effects of climate change that are more severe and sooner than even some of the scientists have predicted. We do know that as the temperature goes up, and it will keep going up, there is a certain point- and it’s different for every place, because it also depends on the humidity and the body’s ability to shed heat through evaporation. So in places that are hot and humid, where we can’t sweat to cool ourselves off, people won’t be able to survive without air conditioning at some point in the future. That’s already probably the case in some super-hot places. And air conditioning, of course, contributes to climate change because it makes cities hotter, and it burns, you know, electricity, which is part of the problem that got us to where we are.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now, in terms of the United States, given that most of our audience is here, how serious do you think the issue of uninhabitability is when it comes to the United States?

DAWN STOVER: Well, right now that’s not an immediate concern unless you talk about the uninhabitability of places like our coastlines, which are disappearing with rising sea level. And so there are places that are being made uninhabitable. Also, you know, there are calls recently for greater protections for people who work outdoors who are going to be exposed to these conditions. Because even if it’s survivable, it’s going to definitely affect productivity and the health of people who work in these conditions.

And so, you know, what’s the most distressing is that under our current administration here in the United States, we’re doing the exact opposite of what we should be doing to mitigate this problem. The Trump administration is rolling back all of the programs that were designed to make our power plants cleaner and our cars more fuel efficient and to mitigate this problem, and is actually going the other direction and calling for more drilling and more exporting of fossil fuel. So it’s, it’s the opposite of a solution to the problem.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Dawn, when you, as we were talking about earlier, when we look at the newspapers and when we watch television, there isn’t a sense of urgency around the climate, and I call it a crisis, that we are in. And partly it’s, you know, what you said, which is that this is considered science reporting and not, you know, mainstream news, per se. But people who are doing weather reports which everybody watches, because they want to know what’s happening in their local community, and particularly given the floods people are experiencing these days- you know, here in Baltimore we’ve had consistent rain for almost two weeks, and places like Ellicott City is underwater, and we’ve seen that on national television. And yet they don’t connect it to policy, and they don’t report it as a part of policy, or related to climate change. Now, what is it going to take to infuse weather reports with that sense of urgency?

DAWN STOVER: I think there have been some improvements. I mean, weathercasters are a huge source of information for people on this topic and do have a golden opportunity to really talk about climate and how that’s affecting what’s happening in the day-to-day weather. And there have been some programs to help get some of that climate science out to the people who report the weather. But right now we’re also seeing efforts, you know, within some of the Republicans that are in Congress and trying to put a stop to those educational programs.

So we need more progress in that area, and we certainly need more of the media companies to become aware of the lack of coverage that they’re giving to this, and to pay attention to the results that have come out from these studies that we reported on in the Bulletin. And you know, they do have an opportunity there every time they do a story on extreme weather to remind people of the connection between extreme events and what is happening with our climate in general.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Dawn, I thank you so much for joining us here on The Real News Network. And we at The Real News have a Climate Crisis Bureau, so we’ll certainly keep reporting on it as one of our main preoccupations here on The Real News. And I thank you for joining us today on this program.

DAWN STOVER: Thanks. I’m glad to hear that. And we’re going to keep reporting at theBulletin.org, too, because climate change is one of the big existential threats that we cover all the time.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right Dawn, I thank you so much.