How to Talk About Climate Change as Catastrophes Pile Up

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The U.K.’s national weather service declared its first-ever extreme heat warning on Monday. The alert now sits alongside age-old ones, such as thunderstorms, fog and lightning. In explaining why a new category was needed, the Met Office was unequivocal: “Research shows that, as a result of climate change, we are now much more likely to see prolonged spells of hot weather.”

You won’t, however, find any mention of climate change in the Sky News story describing how Northern Ireland, a part of the U.K., hit the hottest-ever temperature recorded. You will find plenty of photos of people enjoying themselves at parks and beaches.

Global warming has heated the planet about 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels. That’s having all kinds of impacts, and perhaps on the worse end of the predicted spectrum. Readers deserve to know why they are experiencing weird weather phenomenon around them, because without making the link all the next steps that are needed to slow climate change become less likely to happen. “It’s no longer a vague concern about things happening in the future,” Jennifer Atkinson, professor of environmental humanities at the University of Washington, told Mother Jones.

Sky News is not alone in failing to make that connection. Some bigger news organizations have sought to remedy the issue by having more journalists focus on covering climate change. Still, many local television stations failed to mention global warming when reporting on the wildfires in California and Oregon.

Even when climate change is discussed, it doesn’t always reflect the best-known science. For example, the BBC story on extreme flooding in Germany said: “Experts say that climate change is expected to increase the frequency of extreme weather events, but linking any single event to global warming is complicated.”

There’s a better way, according to Ed Hawkins, a climate scientist at the University of Reading: “Experts say that climate change is already increasing the frequency of extreme weather events, and many single events have been shown to have been made worse by global warming.”

“The science has moved on and it would be great to see that reflected in the news coverage of extreme weather events, rather than the current inaccurate stock phrase,” Hawkins tweeted.

There’s also a risk that the record-breaking events make other extreme weather seem less news-worthy. The record-breaking heatwave on the west coast of North America got worldwide attention, especially after scientists found it was “virtually impossible” without human-caused climate change, but the heatwaves that followed did not.

That’s the danger of shifting baselines. Just as many people have become numb to the suffering that Covid-19 continues to cause, there’s every chance that people get used to the ever-worsening weather.

It’s unrealistic to expect climate disasters to make the front page every time. But historic heatwaves or floods do deserve coverage.

Reporters can also use other forms of storytelling to drive home the message, according Adam Vaughan at New Scientist. "One answer is slower journalism with deep dives, whether it takes the form of a newsletter, podcast or video,” he said. "If you can't justify every event, those are really good ways to draw together the extremes that don't break a record."

There is a golden opportunity in the coming months to address the deficits in climate journalism, says Wolfgang Blau, who held top jobs at The Guardian and Condé Nast before spending the past year as a researcher at Oxford University. He found that Covid-19 has forced journalists across the newsroom to work more closely with their colleagues on the science desk. That’s because what we know about the virus and how governments choose to make policy are typically tied to fast-changing research.

Like Covid-19, climate change touches all aspects of life and economy. That’s why “climate journalism needs to become just as integrated in every vertical,” Blau wrote. 

Akshat Rathi writes the Net Zero newsletter, which examines the world’s race to cut emissions through the lens of business, science, and technology. You can email him with feedback.

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