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Calling this "climate change" is not enough
Journalists and meteorologists must go further, and call rapid hurricane intensification a symptom of fossil fuels.
A monster Category 5 hurricane pummeled the southern Mexican state of Guerrero on Wednesday, killing at least 27 people, knocking out power, and destroying infrastructure in the famed city of Acapulco.
If you’re surprised to hear about this, that may be because weather forecasters were, too. On Tuesday night, Hurricane Otis “experienced nearly unprecedented explosive development in hours, going from a Category 1 to a catastrophic Category 5 with nearly no warning, stunning residents and meteorologists alike,” Fox Weather reported.
The technical term for when hurricanes gain strength very quickly is “rapid intensification,” and the phenomenon is becoming more common as the planet warms.
That’s because greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning, deforestation and industrial agriculture are making the ocean much hotter—and hotter oceans make rapid intensification more likely.
But Hurricane Otis’s growth was on whole other level—so rapid and intense that some forecasters gave it another name: “explosive intensification.” In just 24 hours, the storm’s top-end windspeed increased by 115 miles per hour.
And while scientists cannot say to what degree climate change played a role in Hurricane Otis’s explosive intensification specifically (at least not without an attribution study, which can take months) they are confident in saying that such intensification is an expected symptom of climate change, and thus humanity’s ever-increasing burning of fossil fuels.
“All of this is just confirming what we expected,” Suzana Camargo, a hurricane expert and professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told CNN on Wednesday.
Not just a climate change symptom — a pollution symptom
If you’re a longtime reader, you’ve heard a version of this before, so I apologize for feeding a fed horse.
But I’ve found that most of the climate coverage of Hurricane Otis thus far, while very important, is still largely missing the most important piece of this story: the connection of highly damaging rapid intensification not just to climate change, but to specific sources of carbon pollution.
I can understand, to a degree, why it’s not really happening. For years, there’s been a concerted effort among climate activists and climate journalists to get mainstream media to simply mention “climate change” in their coverage of extreme weather disasters. And this push has not really focused on getting news outlets to mention why climate change is happening.
So consider this my official push for journalists and meteorologists to go one step further. When they write about disastrous weather phenomenons that are “connected to climate change,” I believe that in order to be truly responsible, they must also note the primary causes of climate change: fossil fuels, deforestation, and industrial agriculture.
I have seen some new outlets already take up this practice. Reuters, for example, mentioned the primary source of carbon pollution—fossil fuels—in its climate coverage of the Maui wildfires back in August.
It may seem like a small addition with little meaning, but I don’t think it is. Because when stories about climate-fueled weather disasters don’t mention the actual causes of climate change, they wind up leaving readers and viewers with very little information about what, if anything, can actually be done to solve the problem. I believe this is a big reason why reading about climate change makes so many people feel hopeless.
But on the flip side, when readers are told explicitly about the primary causes of climate change, they are given something to do with their concern. At the very least, they can walk away from coverage of worsening disasters knowing confidently what the solution involves: rapid reduction of pollution and deforestation.
It’s possible that some journalists and meteorologists avoid mentioning the specific causes of climate change in disaster coverage because they believe it equates to activism. But this is not true. Telling readers the specific cause of a problem is not the same as telling readers that they should or must solve that problem. It is also not the same as telling readers who to vote for or what policies to support.
Being explicit about what’s causing the climate crisis simply provides readers with the knowledge they need to make truly informed decisions. This is the primary responsibility of reporters and news outlets, which is why it continually baffles me that we see it so infrequently. It’s also why I continue to write about it despite the embarrassment of repeating myself.
(Also, please don’t attack that CNN article, it is a good article. This is just something I think could really improve all climate/extreme weather coverage. Thanks!)
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Hurricane Otis relief resources:
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