A punishing heat wave is burning the Southwest. It was 121 degrees in Los Angeles county on Sunday, and Death Valley recently reached 130 degrees, a global record. Over 2 million California acres have been incinerated by wildfires since July. That’s more than was destroyed in all of 2018, the previous record for the most acres consumed by fire in a single year.
The week before last, Hurricane Laura plowed through the Southeast, killing 16 people and causing between $8 billion and $12 billion in damages. And the week before that, the Midwest was pummeled by a derecho — a straight-line, high-speed windstorm — which, according to the Iowa secretary of agriculture, dealt a “devastating blow” to this year’s crops, flattening so many cornfields that satellites could see the devastation from space.
There is a name for this relentless series of weather disasters: climate change. But you would not know this from the network news. Of the 50 segments on Hurricane Laura, for example, broadcast by ABC, CBS, and NBC, not one mentioned climate change. CNN did little better. According to research by my organization, End Climate Silence, none of the prime time CNN news shows mentioned climate change either.
Perhaps television news producers fear that the American public has no appetite for climate reporting, given the onslaught of news about the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the 2020 election. Yet new polling shows that the vast majority of Americans, including majorities of Republicans, actually want journalists to explain the connection between extreme weather and climate change.
More than 7 in 10 Americans (72 percent) say that if there is a connection between an extreme weather event and climate change, they want to hear about it in the news, including 85 percent of Democrats, 59 percent of independents, and 62 percent of Republicans. Further, 75 percent of Americans think it’s important for news coverage of extreme weather to explain its connections to climate change. And, finally, majorities say they are more likely to use news sources that started covering the climate crisis more frequently.
Science has found the links between extreme weather and climate change. Rising heat and drought in the West has doubled the amount of land destroyed by fire each year. Laura intensified to a Category 4 storm in less than 24 hours. Such rapid intensification is a sign of climate change, as is the increasing number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes bombarding the United States. And the storm that flattened this year’s crops, like the storm that drowned last year’s, are projected to become ever more frequent and intense until we stop heating our planet by using fossil fuels. TV news anchors can simply add these facts to the stories they’re already reporting nearly every day and give news consumers the information they desire.
For too long, journalists have feared that reporting the links between extreme weather and climate change might expose them to the charge of liberal bias. And it is true they have been attacked for covering climate. In just one recent example, Republican senators, including Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, threatened to investigate the National Science Foundation for funding a program that trained television meteorologists to communicate the science of climate change in their weather reports.
But the news media should not be influenced by such tactics. The first job of a free press is not to be intimidated by governmental threats meant to suppress the truths discovered by science — or any other truths, for that matter. And it’s not to be manipulated into silence by special interests when news consumers want to understand the links between the disasters they fear and the climate change that’s fueling them.
The time for the broadcast news media to talk about climate is right now. Persuadable voters get most of their news from the TV networks, and the 2020 election is make-or-break for the climate — and thus for our children. Trump calls climate change a Chinese hoax, and the GOP platform says it’s an “illusion of an environmental crisis.” We can have four more years of denial and inaction, or we can have a habitable planet. We cannot have both.
Television news anchors should mention the links to climate change in their segments on extreme weather — but then they should go further. They should report on the increasingly alarming findings of climate science and the ever more urgent symptoms of our feverish planet. And they, like all journalists, should find and report the links between climate change and stories in energy, politics, business and finance, immigration, real estate, health, travel, food, and even the arts.
Climate change is the profoundly urgent context for the stories in today’s news, and Americans want to hear more about it. The broadcast news should give us the information we’re looking for. In return, producers will deliver a more accurate news product and increase their competitive advantage. That sounds like a win-win-win — for us, for the broadcast news media, and for the planet.
Genevieve Guenther is the founder and director of End Climate Silence.