Last week’s heat wave brought record temperatures to Southern California. Hot winds blew fire into my community in Santa Barbara County, ripping through a dozen homes and threatening hundreds more.
I tuned into the local news channel, where reporters reminded viewers that we had just finished a record-breaking fire season. They strained to list all the fires we’d had over the past decade. There were too many to recall.
Fires are happening a lot more often across California. You can’t accurately call it a fire “season” anymore. The season is year-round.
But journalists who report on the fires or heat waves rarely acknowledge this reality. Last week, the local newscasters in my area never did, even though it has a very familiar name: climate change.
The same is true of the media at large. Although it reports on each fresh disaster — every fire, every hurricane, every flood — it tends to stop short of linking extreme weather events to global warming, as though the subject were the exclusive province of reporters on the climate beat.
As a result, we’re missing what is arguably the biggest story of all: The climate we knew is no more. We’ve already warmed the planet, whether we deny it or not.
It’s not hard to spot global warming in the news. If you’re looking, its marks are everywhere. Right now, southern Japan is flooded. Two months’ worth of rain fell in five days, a day’s worth in an hour. Mudslides followed. More than 200 are dead, more are missing, millions are displaced.
But to get the larger story about extreme weather events, you have to read between the headlines.
There is no sound justification for this. Not anymore. Scientists have been churning out evidence of human-caused climate change for more than a century. Some are figuring out exactly how much to blame global warming for any given weather event. They're getting really good at it.
We can now link many recent disasters and weather events to climate change. We know, for instance, that more than three-quarters of moderate heat waves are connected to warming. We also know that, were it not for climate change, fires in the West would have burned half as much land since the 1980s. Scientists have been documenting the increase in extreme rain events in Japan since the early 1990s.
The science is clear. Journalists need to start using it.
There are reasons they haven’t. Reporters are trained to distinguish weather from climate. They are also conditioned to avoid the appearance of political bias, and a decades-long campaign to sow doubt about global warming has cast a partisan aura on the facts.
But with a bit of nuance, journalists can carefully identify the pattern. Any weather event has multiple causes. More and more, climate change is one of them, and its share of blame is growing.
The public is not entirely in the dark. In fact, research by Peter D. Howe, a geographer at Utah State University, shows that 60% of people in 89 countries correctly perceive that temperatures where they live have warmed over time. According to a study by the political scientists Matto Mildenberger and Dustin Tingley, most Americans underestimate how many people share their belief that climate change is real. Most of us know this is not a drill, and most of us want our government to do more.
We all need to do more. Countries around the world need to go beyond the commitments made in Paris. We need more wind and solar energy. We need states to keep nuclear plants open when they are safe, because they already produce clean energy. We need to stop rolling back renewable energy laws, as my research has documented in Ohio, Texas and Arizona.
But we won’t do any of this until we can see what’s happening. Journalists play a critical role in helping the public to make these connections. They need to start telling the whole story.