In a recent interview with MTV, President Obama said he was “surprised” that climate didn’t come up in the presidential debates. This isn’t a very good excuse for avoiding discussion of the problem, particularly when you’re debating your opponent over drilling for fossil fuels and promoting clean energy.
But is it really a surprise that it didn’t get mentioned by a moderator?
After all, there are virtually no demands from broadcast journalists that political leaders actually talk about the problem. And the climate silence stretches far beyond the presidential debates. Coverage of Hurricane Sandy is the latest example.
Yesterday, while Superstorm Sandy passed over Washington, I hunkered down in front of my television and watched coverage of the storm. As I flipped between cable and network news shows, I was subjected to the same endless parade of reporters swaying in the wind, wading through flooded streets, and talking about projected catastrophic damage. But throughout it all, there were no mentions of the dramatic increases in extreme weather and no mentions of the influence of a warming planet on extreme storms like Sandy. According to tracking from TVEyes, there were only a couple quick references on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Monday morning and nothing on the other networks throughout the day.
This also shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. So little of television news is designed to put issues in context, particularly during times of emergency when outlets are intensely competing for viewers looking for disaster updates.
But there are too many factors to ignore. In September, we saw our 331st month in a row with global temperatures above the 20th century average. Meanwhile in 2012, we’ve seen record Arctic ice loss, and the U.S. has faced two record heat waves, a record drought, an above-average fire season, and now, an “unprecedented” hurricane.
The climate factors behind individual events like Superstorm Sandy are complex. But one thing is clear: the extra energy in the atmosphere from greenhouse gases increases the probability of extreme weather events.
“This isn’t the atmosphere I grew up with,” explained meteorologist Jeff Masters during this spring’s record heat wave.
“The extra heat increases the odds of worse heat waves, droughts, storms and wildfire. This is certainly what I and many other climate scientists have been warning about,” said University of Arizona scientist Jonathan Overpeck, speaking to the Associated Press about this summer’s extreme weather.
Scientists have coined two really effective metaphors for communicating this change. NASA’s James Hansen likes to call it “loading the climate dice.” And others have compared the influence of greenhouse gases on extreme weather to a baseball hitter taking steroids. Both effectively illustrate how heat-trapping gases increase the probability and intensity of drought, heat, and storms.
These are good tools for reporters when explaining a very complex issue like climate change. However, rather than use them, reporters continue to ignore the problem altogether — choosing instead to focus on easy stories like flooded streets and electricity outages. Of course, these are important for getting people messages to keep them safe. But throughout the day yesterday, no outlet made an attempt to connect climate and extreme weather.
Research from Media Matters for America shows just how ridiculous this climate avoidance gets.
During this July’s extreme heat wave, only 8.7 percent of television news coverage mentioned climate change; over the summer, television news outlets covered Paul Ryan’s P90-X workouts three times more than the record loss of Arctic sea ice; and between 2009 and 2011, coverage of climate change on television news outlets plummeted by 90 percent — with every network covering Donald Trump more than climate issues.
After one recent presidential debate, CNN’s Candy Crowley inadvertently revealed how many television news reporters feel about climate. During the post-debate analysis, Crowley regretted not asking a question “for all you climate people” — dismissing climate as a fringe issue that doesn’t have any bearing on anything else being discussed.
And therefore, you get the kind of television coverage we’ve seen around Superstorm Sandy: anchors talking for hours about a broken crane in New York City; reporters sitting for hours in the middle of a flooded street saying very little new about water levels; and the complete avoidance of any scientific explanation of the factors driving extreme weather.
If we want our political leaders to start talking about climate change, we also need reporters to do the same when the opportunity arises. This was yet another failed opportunity.
Note: there are some outlets making a good effort on this issue. Check out the yesterday’s Sandy segments from Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks and Jennifer Granholm of The War Room — two shows on Current TV that often draw a very clear climate connection to stories. In addition, Chris Hayes of MSNBC had an extensive climate segment earlier this month, in which he called out the candidates for their climate silence.