Heat waves continue to wash over the globe, breaking records and threatening lives. This year is on track to rank among the four hottest years on record—together with 2015, 2016, and 2017. Buildings and roads in the United Kingdom are literally melting. In Japan, 116 people died and more than 30,000 were taken to hospitals by ambulance because of the heat wave in July.
Along with the scorching heat, deadly wildfires are dominating much of the news cycle. Fires have raged in places as widespread as the American West, Greece, and the Arctic. More than 10,000 firefighters are battling the Carr Fire in California, which has killed six people and burned more than 100,000 acres and is still growing. In a July 29 tweet, writer Alex Steffen wrote that “the pyrocumulus [fire] cloud “is to this generation what the mushroom cloud was to Boomers.”
Scientific studies have linked earlier heat waves to climate change, and a new analysis by scientists with the World Weather Attribution project concluded that human-driven climate change made the latest heat wave in northern Europe more than twice as likely. Scientists have also warned that climate change makes wildfires more likely in places where high temperatures and low humidity combine to deadly effect.
According to a Gallup poll earlier this year, nearly two-thirds of Americans understand that human activity is driving global warming, and 43 percent of them say they worry about it a great deal. However, less than half think global warming will pose a serious threat in their lifetime.
“This is not a future scenario. It is happening now,” said World Meteorological Organization Deputy Secretary-General Elena Manaenkova. So why aren’t Americans connecting the dots between climate and extreme weather? One reason is that major media outlets are not informing their audiences about the link.
As we reported earlier, only one in 127 segments or weathercasts on ABC, CBS, and NBC mentioned climate change heat in their reporting on the heat wave that struck during a two-week period from late June to early July. The problem isn’t confined to network TV, though.
A report published on July 27 by the nonprofit organization Public Citizen, “Extreme Silence: How the U.S. Media Have Failed to Connect Climate Change to Extreme Heat in 2018,” examined coverage by the top 50 US newspapers, additional newspapers in 13 states that experienced record-breaking temperatures during the heat wave from June 27 to July 8, and national programming from ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News Network, MSNBC, and NBC. Shockingly, the report discovered that media coverage of climate change actually declined during that heat wave:
Overall, these findings suggest that the extreme heat event that scorched much of the U.S. over nearly two weeks in late June and early July 2018 generally failed to prompt conversations about climate change in national or local media. To the contrary, outlets in each category we examined—national broadcast networks, the top 50 newspapers, and newspapers in states in which 10 or more heat records were broken—were significantly less likely to mention climate change in heat-related content during the recent heat waves than they were during 2018 to date on average.
One reason given for the lack of coverage is that the public simply isn’t interested in climate change. In a tweet posted on July 24, MSNBC host Chris Hayes (who actually has one of the better track records for reporting on climate) wrote that the incentives to cover climate change “are not great,” because the subject has been “a palpable ratings killer.”
That’s a massive abdication of responsibility. The general public doesn’t see climate change as an urgent and compelling problem because the media don’t report it as such. It’s seen as a “niche issue,” according to a recent article in The New Republic.
There is a reason that immigration and poor government leadership were cited as the most important problems facing the United States in a July Gallup poll, while global warming didn’t even make the list: Prolonged, in-depth media coverage continues to shed light on these issues.
The world is on fire. Climate change is already wreaking havoc on coastlines, crops, and critters. It’s the biggest story of the century. But many journalists seem to be as apathetic as their audiences are.