The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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Covering Climate Coverage

CNN recently posted a striking summary of major wildfires and heat waves around the world, including the US, Canada, Sweden, Japan, and Greece. There is also major heat and drought in the British Isles, literally changing the color of these countries as seen from space. This is all not to mention recent, dangerous flooding in the US and Japan.

It’s been a rough July for a lot of people.

The standard line is always that while climate change causes more, and more severe, extreme weather, individual weather events cannot be attributed to climate change. I have reason to believe that’s not always true, as I have detailed several times on this blog. In recent years, though, I’ve become less interested in specific extreme weather events, and more interested in the pattern of extreme weather as a whole–while it certainly seems like our planet is getting more extreme weather than it used to, it’s also possible it’s just making the news more frequently. After all, some extreme weather has always been normal. Humans are notoriously bad at intuiting such things (many people insist we’re in a national crime wave when the opposite is true, for example), that’s why we invented statistics. So, how abnormal is our current spate of abnormal weather?

I’ve asked that question before, but was unable to find an answer.

Now, I have another question; irrespective of whether climate change is behind this particular difficult July, are major news outlets covering this as a climate story?

Reviewing the News

A few weeks ago, Media Matters published a study showing that broadcast media coverage of heat waves at the end of June and the beginning of July rarely mentioned climate change–CBS had the one lone exception for the period–and that the mainstream media generally under-cover climate change.

I’ve just done my own quick study, covering the month of July, and including all weather-related disasters (not just heat waves), and three newspapers, Accuweather, and The Weather Channel, as well as broadcast media sites–and in the case of the latter, in most cases I’m looking at articles posted on their websites, not stories that aired. Prior searches suggest that media outlets may be slightly more willing to cover climate on their websites than on air, so if anything my survey overestimates what was aired.

For each of several mainstream sources where Americans might get climate-related news, I searched online for the name of the organization and “climate change July 2018.” I ignored articles about climate politics and anything posted before July 1st of this year. I looked specifically for articles that discussed current events in weather in the context of climate change.

CNN

CNN post an excellent article putting this summer’s extreme weather in context and including a copy of an important graphic I’ve seen elsewhere explaining how slight changes in average temperatures translate to major increases in extreme heat.

FOX News

Nothing about the weather and climate change, but their site did run an AP story on Pope Francis’ call for climate action. In June there were several other solid AP articles on climate issues.

NBC News/MSNBC

Nothing, although there were a few articles on climate change earlier in the year.

ABC

Nothing from the American Broadcast Company. The Australian Broadcast Company is doing some interesting things, though.

CBS

The website of a local CBS affiliate (CBS8) ran a USA Today story on a recent study linking increasing suicide rates to climate change. The main CBS website ran an AP story on melting glaciers.

PBS

PBSĀ  Newshour summarized the recent heat waves–but didn’t mention flooding–and briefly mentioned that scientists connect the heat to climate change. There was also a story on the social and economic impact of climate change in Afghanistan. These were on-air pieces, not web-only articles. WNET, New York’s PBS station, has produced a series on climate change, airing through July, although none of the topics appear to address the context of current weather.

BBC

BBC’s website has posted several climate-related stories this month, but none directly addressed current extreme weather as an aspect of climate change.

The Weather Channel

You’d think so, but nope. There were some climate-related articles earlier in the year, though.

Accuweather

Nope, not either. There are several stories about climate topics, but none about the context of July’s weather. There is a video about the heat wave listed under the “Climate Change” heading, but it doesn’t mention climate change.

NPR

NPR has a series on climate change that has been airing through July, but does not address the context of July’s weather. Neither do the several other climate-related stories on the site.

The New York Times

The New York Times has published several interesting climate-related articles, but none focus on contextualizing the current weather–at least one article on current natural disasters did briefly acknowledge the role of climate change, though.

The Washington Post

The Washington Post published an editorial calling for workplace protections from heat in light of climate change, though it did not mention current weather events.

USA TODAY

USA TODAY has an excellent article on climate change in Pakistan, and an article about a study showing that humans have definitely made summers hotter. And then there was its aforementioned piece on suicide rates and an article with some very bad climate news. But nothing contextualizing the weather. Their article summarizing recent floods and fires and droughts does not mention climate change.

Thin Coverage

Basically, unless you’re watching CNN (and this is assuming that CNN broadcast something similar to its article–it might not have), you will have missed the big story about climate this July so far, unless you connect the dots yourself, or go beyond the mainstream media. PBS and the New York Times each acknowledged the connection between current disaster and climate change, but both mentions were easy to miss. PBS used language distancing itself even then, quoting unnamed scientists, rather than simply reporting the scientific fact (if they treated meteorology that way, they’d say “scientists claim that much of the Earth was unusually got this week.”)

The big question–whether the extreme weather this July has been unusual, or just run-of-the-mill for a variable planet–was nowhere addressed. Nowhere.

I’m struck by a couple of things. First, PBS and NPR are not outliers on this particular question. Neither is Fox News. Though these organizations may have real editorial differences, neither lived up to stereotype this time. The reluctance to cover climate seems simply to be general.

Second, and perhaps more important, many of these organizations DID cover other climate-related stories well this month–but only in ways that framed the problem as something that happens in another place or another time or another context. Nobody addressed what should be the obvious question; is what’s happening this week, to me (or any of their target audience) part of the climate change story?

Is it any wonder the climate sanity movement has stalled when no one acknowledges that the problem is personal?

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Let’s Get Personal

The news is full of record-breaking heat-waves, torrential rains, mandatory evacuations because of wildfire, and the remnants of Hurricane Beryl just hit Dominica–which wouldn’t be so bad, since the storm had weakened considerably, except a lot of people there are still living in houses without real roofs since Hurricane Maria last year. All pretty normal, these days. But instead of the usual big-picture posts I usually make on these subjects (such as this one and this one and this one), I’d like to talk for a bit about someone I actually know.

I haven’t asked his permission to write about this, so I’ll keep his identity strictly under wraps–but he’s a real person, notĀ  composite or a hypothetical character.

He’s a farmer. He has a very large farm which he typically puts into corn and soybeans, and then a cover crop in the winter. The corn and soybeans mostly become animal feed. He participates in a number of conservation programs, though he does not use organic methods. He usually makes a pretty good living for himself.

This year will likely be an exception.

In the spring, he got his corn planted, but then it all washed away in a series of torrential rains. So, he re-planted his corn, and started planting his soybeans. Then a serious drought developed and his crops are dying all over again. And, because of a technicality, much of what he has lost is not going to be eligible for crop insurance. Planting costs money and takes time (a lot of time–it’s a big farm), but he can’t not plant, despite expecting a total loss now on all his crops, because otherwise he won’t be eligible for the cover crop program. So he expects to lose money this year, and there’s not a whole lot he can do about it.

Since he normally makes a good living, one bad year is not going to break him. He’ll be ok. But the situation is a giant headache, and of course there is always the risk that multiple forms of bad luck could happen at once. He’s vulnerable right now, and that sort of vulnerability is never fun.

The spring floods were pretty definitely climate change-related, but otherwise I have no idea if this year has been a statistical anomaly relative to the historical average for his region. And I don’t intend to try to figure that out because it’s not my point.

My point is that, regardless of cause, this is what the economic repercussions of frequent extreme weather looks like–one problem following on another before you’ve quite caught up. And climate change does mean that years like this can be expected to happen more frequently. How many bust years can one farmer handle in a row? I don’t know.

One farmer having a bad year is a problem for his (or her) family and friends, but neither floods nor droughts happen to just one person at a time. Whole regions of increased crop failure stresses the crop insurance system and the food distribution system. In this case, we might see the price of chicken go up, since the birds have less available feed this year. The United States is wealthy enough that we can absorb the economic cost collectively, and those of us who are not friends with farmers will likely not notice the difference, but the cost is still real.

Given enough such costs, often enough, our absorptive capacity will eventually be compromised.

This is climate change.