We Need To Name and Shame Bad Climate Journalism

Human-caused global warming is creating catastrophic weather events. Our media has a responsibility to tell the public why this is happening and who is responsible.

The heat index temperature here in New Orleans right now is 114 F. The high temperatures here have broken records that were previously set by last year’s heat. Air conditioners in city buildings are failing. The unprecedented heat is, of course, at its cruelest for unhoused people and people who work outside. New Orleans unsolved its homelessness problem by kicking people out of the accommodations it found for them during the pandemic, and there’s currently no talk of the climate emergency justifying similar relief. Spare a thought, too, for the prisoners around the South who are being boiled in facilities with no air conditioning, because in this country we do not recognize the most basic human rights of those we imprison. 

We human beings, for the most part, try to get used to things we don’t feel we have the power to change. So when I came out of the house this morning I tried to reassure myself that it wasn’t that bad, and then I looked over and saw a dead lizard that had been baked to a crisp on my porch. Within minutes of leaving the house, I can feel that this heat is not normal summer heat. It’s unbearable. The eerie thing is how little it cools off at night. Usually the nights provide relief, but in these heat waves they’re still stifling.

The climate situation is dystopian all over the country right now. Smoke from wildfires is ruining the air quality of Northern cities. The West is about to see its own heatwaves. And what I can’t stop thinking about is the fact that this is the beginning. These are the early effects of global warming. I am not looking forward to seeing where this goes.

Today, however, I feel more anger than dread, because our media is not acting responsibly in explaining to people what is happening to them. They are not telling us that what we are experiencing is essentially the largest industrial disaster in history. They are treating the phenomena we see as natural, or freakishly aberrational. They are declining to mention that the horrible phenomena we see are being imposed on us through policy, and that we have the power to decide whether this turns apocalyptic or not. 

Consider this New York Times article, headlined “As the South Stews, Temperatures Are Set to Rise in the West, Too.” The article explains that “the extreme heat has been an early test in a region already resigned to high temperatures, heavy humidity and long summers” and “has strained air-conditioners, heightened the danger of outdoor work and turned some leisure activities into matters of endurance.” It profiles workers at the Mobile Botanical Gardens (that’s the botanical gardens in Mobile, Alabama, not a botanical garden that moves around, charming as that would be). The staff there “carry bottled water and stock more watermelon- and pineapple-flavored ice fruit bars” and “the most heat-sensitive plants, including Max, a decades-old staghorn fern, and a group of orchids, have been moved from a greenhouse perch to a safer, cooler location.”

But the word “climate” appears nowhere in the article. Nowhere does the Times piece mention that all of this is part of a disaster caused by the burning of fossil fuels. To understand how strange that is, imagine if in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the New York Times had run an article on the deaths of birds in the oil spill without mentioning the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Imagine an article that simply said that due to unusually high quantities of oil, many birds were dying, and then covered the efforts of bird ecologists to quantify the deaths. If an article like that didn’t mention BP, and talked only about things that were a direct consequence of the spill while avoiding mention of the spill itself, I think it is safe to say that you would almost think the Times was deliberately trying to exonerate BP for its crimes. 

Yet for some reason, as the climate disaster is discussed, this kind of evasion appears regularly in the newspapers and passes by without comment. Look closely at the Times coverage of extreme weather events and you’ll see precisely what I mean. Consider the story “Colorado Residents Ponder the Road Ahead After Wildfires,” published in Jan. 2022 after an intense wildfire had destroyed 1,000 houses in the middle of winter. The article profiles the devastated families who lost their homes, and mentioned that the area was drought-stricken, but you wouldn’t know from reading the story what you’d know from Climate.gov, which is that multiple experts including the state’s deputy climatologist had concluded that human-caused global warming likely played a part in creating the conditions for the catastrophic fire. 

Or take this recent story: “Smoky Air From Canadian Wildfires Blankets Midwestern Skies.” There is one brief mention of the climate crisis, and it comes in a quote from progressive Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson: “As we work to respond to the immediate health concerns in our communities, this concerning episode demonstrates and underscores the harmful impact that the climate crisis is having on our residents, as well as people all over the world.” In other words, if Chicago hadn’t had a progressive mayor who actually cares about the climate crisis, there wouldn’t be any mention of it in coverage of the effects of the crisis. 

This is all too common. There was a major Berkeley study of the Times’ climate coverage in 2019, which looked at whether the paper mentioned basic facts about what was happening. Generally, it didn’t, and “of the 600 news articles mentioning climate change over the 38-year period, the vast majority contained none of the five basic climate facts.” That’s pretty incredible, but most appalling is probably the fact that out of articles that mentioned climate change, almost none (0.1 percent) mentioned the fact that it is caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

So even on the occasions when articles about climate disasters actually mention global warming, they don’t mention the causes of global warming. For an example, see the Times’ recent “What to Know About Canadian Wildfires and U.S. Air Quality.” In this Q&A, after answering questions like “How many fires are burning in Canada?” and “How are the wildfires affecting air quality — and summer fun?” the Times does briefly turn to the question “What role does global warming play?” We are told:

Climate research suggests that heat and drought associated with global warming are major reasons behind the number of fires and their intensity. Canada has the world’s largest intact forest ecosystem, and many parts of the country have recently experienced drought and high heat. That can make trees vulnerable to fire and can dry out dead grass, pine needles and any other material on the forest floor that can act as kindling.

But, consistent with the Berkeley study, even when we are told that global warming is responsible, we are not told that burning fossil fuels is responsible for global warming. Again, imagine saying that bird deaths were caused by an oil spill, but not saying where the oil came from. 

Let’s look at one more example. Amy Davidson Sorkin, in the New Yorker, wrote recently about how the high temperatures in Texas are not just normal summer heat. “Something is different,” she said. The lead-up to a discussion of the catastrophic effects of burning fossil fuels? No. Davidson Sorkin documents all of the ways in which this new extreme heat is different, from its effect on prisoners to the fact that in certain places the temperature is “close to the level at which it becomes highly likely that the human body will no longer be able to regulate itself, meaning that heat stroke, with the possibility of coma and death, sets in.” She does come to the point that this is the fault of climate change, writing that “as the planet as a whole gets warmer, there is a higher baseline when something like a heat dome settles in, placing communities in closer proximity to disaster.” She briefly expresses hope that the heat will “galvanize Americans to take action.” But once again, the fossil fuel industry is unmentioned. Another “let us lament the oil spill and hope action is taken without mentioning who spilled the oil” piece. 

I am sure the go-to defense of this kind of coverage will be that people already know the facts of who and what is responsible for causing this disaster. But it is not enough to be vaguely aware of it. We have to talk about it so that we can do something about it. Framing things as a natural disaster, and avoiding discussion of the corporate criminals who have actually caused the harm, conditions people to simply accept a totally avoidable calamity as an unchangeable fact of life.

This kind of climate coverage is unconscionable. It has to stop. The whole tone needs to shift. Every story about something caused by global warming must mention the burning of fossil fuels. It is the job of journalists to connect the dots for people, to show them the link between the profiteering of oil and gas companies and the deaths of people from heat stroke. Deepening that understanding is crucial to getting people to feel they can alter their situation through taking collective political action.

I single out the New York Times because they should theoretically be the best at this. They have a whole climate desk. Other publications are much, much worse; the Wall Street Journal runs outright denialist propaganda on its editorial pages consistently. I am sure few of the reporters who write these terrible stories for the Times actually deny human-caused global warming. Instead, they’re just like Democratic Party politicians, who will say that they believe in the climate crisis but then act like people who don’t. 

The unwillingness to point fingers at the culprits is all too common generally. Even the Paris Agreement doesn’t mention the burning of fossil fuels. The fossil fuel industry may not have succeeded in its effort to convince the public that global warming isn’t real (hard to maintain when our cities are shrouded in wildfire smoke and people are collapsing from heat exhaustion). But they have succeeded in getting us not to talk about their own responsibility or having a public discussion about the urgent need to eliminate their industry entirely. 

What would responsible journalism on extreme weather look like? First, it would follow the Berkeley criteria. Every article needs to mention the basic facts: global warming is happening, it’s caused by burning fossil fuels, it’s permanent, it’s worse than ever, and there’s a scientific consensus on it. Any article that covers a global warming related catastrophe without mentioning these facts should be considered denialist propaganda. If you see an article on extreme heat or wildfires that does not mention the basic facts, contact the journalists and their editors and ask them, politely but firmly, why they excluded these facts. Hold the media accountable. Shame them when they do the bidding of the fossil fuel industry. 

Second, it is critical that journalists do not contribute to hopelessness. Climate change is “bleak.” It is an overwhelming problem that can make us feel powerless. But the problem is not that this is inevitable, the problem is that our political system is not responsive to the public’s demand for more action to address the crisis. The job of journalists is the same as it would be with any other environmental disaster: to cover the consequences, to explain clearly the causes, to hold the perpetrators accountable, and to provide people with the knowledge they need in order to take action. Just as there is no excuse for climate coverage that is silent on the problem’s causes, there is no excuse for coverage that makes people feel like the apocalypse is coming and all they can do is try to stay alive. 

Do not let media organizations get away with declining to discuss the full facts of the situation. We are in an urgent crisis, and journalists who cover up the fossil fuel industry’s responsibility for all this suffering by leaving the industry unmentioned might as well be paid agents of Exxon and Shell. You may not think that much good can come of emailing editors. But media organizations depend on their readers and viewers for survival. If the audience revolts, the media has to respond. Make it clear to them that you will not pay money for soft denialism. They must either meet their basic obligations or lose their audience. There is much more that we must do to collectively act to address this crisis. But holding the press accountable for covering it ethically is one critical component. 

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