Not Making the Climate Connection to California’s Fires Is Media Malpractice

“None of the initial reports in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, or the San Jose Mercury News even so much as mentioned climate change,” writes David Wallace-Wells.

The images from California are terrifying. Walls of fire. Ash-soaked cities. Smoke that stretches well into the Midwest. More than 1 million acres burned in a week, more than in all of 2019. Much of that has been in the Bay Area, but every one of California’s 58 counties, except San Francisco, has had fires. One-hundred thousand people have evacuated their homes, and the entire state is on notice to be prepared to do the same.

In recent memory, wildfires like this would have been all but unheard of, as David Wallace-Wells noted in New York magazine. Yet, Wallace-Wells writes, “None of the initial reports in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, or the San Jose Mercury News even so much as mentioned climate change.”

Evening news segments on major national networks also failed to draw the connection.

At this point, this is nothing less than media malpractice. The effect of such climate silence is to imply that the wildfires are random—a stroke of bad luck, perhaps, in an already woefully unlucky year. But we know better than this. We know that we humans are causing disasters like this. And we know that we can solve the climate crisis, should we muster the political will to do so.

Digging deeper, news coverage should point out that all of this is unfolding at “only” 1 degree Celsius of global warming. The Paris Agreement, which Donald Trump plans to pull the US out of this November, calls for limiting heating to “well below” 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. If these fires in California—not to mention the devastating fires earlier this year in Australia, the fires in Siberia, the floods in China, the floods in the Caribbean, and all the many disasters elsewhere this year—are what 1 degree of heating looks like, we surely do not want to discover what 2 degrees will bring. That’s especially so, because, as Bill McKibben described this week in The New York Review of Books, “if we go to two degrees, that will cause feedbacks that take us automatically higher. At a certain point, it will be too late.”

News coverage should also note that more frequent extreme weather will result in overlapping disasters, especially for the least fortunate among us. The coronavirus pandemic, for example, complicates efforts to escape the fires. As Leah Stokes puts it in a stirring essay for The Atlantic: “Evacuating to a friend’s house or a community center when a highly contagious illness is circulating is not a simple choice.” But even many people who are putatively safe at home have lost power and are left with an impossible choice: sit in a hot house or open the windows to smoke-filled air? “I don’t want to live in a world where we have to decide which mask to wear for which disaster,” Stokes writes, “but this is the world we are making.”

It is indeed the world we’re making. But it is also a world we can repair. As journalists, we must tell the whole story, while we still can.

REMINDER: At CCNow, we believe climate change is a defining issue in this fall’s elections, at all levels of government. Make sure to take a look at our fall plans, which include a CCNow “joint coverage week,” September 21 to 28, when we encourage all partners to focus extra attention on Climate Politics 2020, and a Youth Takeover Day.

Now, here’s your weekly sampling of the latest in climate news, from across the Covering Climate Now collaboration.

  • Rounding up all of this year’s disasters, Jeff Berardelli of CBS News writes that “the unprecedented and concurrent extreme conditions resemble the chaotic climate future scientists have been warning us about for decades—only it’s happening right now.” Even climate scientist Michael Mann admits to being surprised by this year’s events. “In many respects, the impacts are playing out faster and with greater severity than we predicted,” Mann tells CBS. This piece is *available for republication by CCNow partners.
  • In a lengthy investigation, the Center for Public Integrity and Columbia Journalism Investigations delve into the mental health implications of our climate emergency. In the wake of 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, for example, 50 percent of Houston residents struggled with “powerful or severe emotional distress.” But the lone government program designed to help reaches only a small fraction of people affected—and its support seldom lasts as long as victims need.  This investigation also includes an explainer on how to cope with emotional wounds and a piece on the benefit of community gatheringsconvivencias, in Spanish—for one group in California. These pieces are *available for republication by CCNow partners. Please find associated graphics for the first and second stories in this folder. Note the additional credit boxes that must be included with those stories, and in the standard CCNow tagline be sure to credit both the Center for Public Integrity and Columbia Journalism Investigations.
  • The Sunrise Movement is out this week with Winning the Green New Deal, a collection of essays by leading experts about the policy proposal that seeks to pull humanity back from the brink of climate catastrophe. Edited by Varshini Prakash and Guido Girgenti, the book’s authors include Rhiana Gunn-Wright, Bill McKibben, Rev William Barber II, and more. As an activist group, the Sunrise Movement is not a CCNow partner, but the book, which is published by Simon & Schuster, may serve as fodder for interviews with the contributors and articles about their essays.
  • In yet another sign of fossil fuels’ decline, ExxonMobil, once the world’s largest company, will be booted from the Dow Jones Industrial AverageBloomberg Green reports. The 30-stock index, which reflects a curated cross-section of the market overall, is also dropping the drug company Pfizer and the defense contractor Raytheon; in their place, the index will include more technology companies, which collectively have experienced dramatic growth this year. Chevron is the only remaining fossil fuel company in the index. “Those changes are a sign of the times,” one investor said. “Out with energy and in with cloud.”
  • Green Queen Media from Hong Kong has a Q&A with Harvard Business School professor Rebecca Henderson, author of the new book Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire. As it stands, Henderson says, capitalism “is not working for very large numbers of people on the planet. It is creating long-term damage that will cause immense harm to the planet and to our society.” Her approach, she says, “is to say that we need every firm to be aware that managers have a responsibility to not only investors, but to the long-term health of the society and the planet.” This piece is *available for republication by CCNow partners.
  • In Palm Beach County, Florida, some forty miles from the president’s opulent Mar-a-Lago retreat, US Sugar’s practice of burning its crop at harvest time is choking the air with pollutants and making it hard for residents—and young students—in the low-income, predominantly Black community to breath. A stellar investigation from Grist and Type Investigations found that public agencies at all levels of government have failed to ban the practice despite clear health impacts, which are more acute amid the coronavirus pandemic. This piece is *available for republication by CCNow partners.
  • A new study from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication analyzes predictors of public support for climate-related policy in the US, among both Democrats and Republicans. To build support for climate action among Republicans specifically, the study finds, communicators should emphasize “injunctive norms,” such as family and friends who think action is important, and the impact of extreme weather. (Another recent study by the Yale program, covered by Grist, found what many climate journalists have learned anecdotally: that intimate storytelling is more likely to shift climate change perceptions than data and statistics.)

WELCOMING NEW PARTNERS: CCNow continues to grow, and this week we proudly welcome the nonprofit Maryland MattersThe Mendocino Voice in northern California, Indian Voices in San Diego, Impakter in Italy, The Times of Israel in Israel, Radio Orange 94.0 in Austria, and Yeşil Gazete in Turkey.

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