A Bit of Good News: The Media & Climate Change

This summer has been full of disaster. James Taylor had no idea what was coming when he first sang the words “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain” back in 1970. The wildfires in the West, especially in California and Oregon, have been unprecedented, fueled by a drought that has gripped the region for several years. The floods in July in Germany and Belgium as well as China, where rivers overflowing their banks is not at all uncommon, have been record breaking.

And let’s not forget that it rained in mid-August on the summit of the Greenland ice cap, two miles up, for the first time ever. The event was so unexpected that scientists at the research station there didn’t have a gauge to measure the precipitation, which has always come frozen before.

Louisiana National Guardsmen rescue people in LaPlace, Louisiana, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. Photo by Louisiana National Guard licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The one element missing from Taylor’s classic song was wind. The catastrophic arrival of Hurricane Ida on the coast of Louisiana on August 29 – the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – marked the first time the state had category 4 landfalls in back-to-back hurricane seasons. Intensifying with horrifying rapidity, Ida thrashed southwest Louisiana with 150 mph winds as it crashed ashore. It tied last year’s Hurricane Laura and the Last Island Hurricane of 1856 as the state’s most powerful storm ever.

Ready for some good news? Well, admittedly it’s not a very high bar, but it does appear that media coverage of extreme weather events has improved. Increasingly, news reports are connecting these events with climate change more effectively than in past years. In part this is because their numbers, scale, and intensity have outpaced the predictions of climate scientists and caught them off balance. The resulting dramatic tension makes for a more suspenseful and engaging narrative.

The striking progress in the field of attribution science has also contributed to the better coverage, making it possible to show how these are not isolated occurrences but instead are linked to global warming trends. As the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) notes, “On a case-by-case basis, scientists can now quantify the contribution of human influences to the magnitude and probability of many extreme events.” This ability to pinpoint the extent to which human-induced climate change amplifies the weather disasters we’re experiencing represents a major breakthrough.

Make no mistake, though, there’s an even more fundamental force at work: the media – at least a large part of it – has finally accepted the scientific consensus on climate change as fact. That may be the biggest change of all

study released two weeks ago underscores this shift. It found that 90% of print media coverage now accurately represents what has become indisputable: human activity is driving global warming. The analysis examined thousands of articles from 2005 to 2019 in 17 major newspapers in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

As an excellent article in Grist points out, these findings are a sharp departure from the last comparable study in 2004, which concluded that more than half of the articles it surveyed “treated dissenting opinions as equally valid.” In this earlier investigation, researchers looking at articles from 1988 to 2002 discovered that only 35% of them accurately reflected the scientific consensus on climate change. So, at long last, there’s been a significant retreat from the “both sides” approach.

The print media, of course, is just one of the places people find information about climate change, and it’s far from the most popular source. Clearly, television (especially Fox News) and social media – where the majority of people get their news – still have a long way to go.

Even in these arenas, however, the tone has changed. As Max Boykoff, director of the Environmental Studies program at the University of Colorado Boulder and co-author of both studies, observes, “The terrain of climate debates has largely shifted in recent years away from mere denial of human contributions to climate change to a more subtle and ongoing undermining of support for specific policies meant to substantially address climate change.”

In short, the climate disasters will keep coming, bigger and badder than ever, but at least we’ll be getting the facts straight a lot more than previously about how we’ve helped make them happen.