Nothing to see here, folks

News outlets continue to ignore climate change in articles about California's record-breaking weather.

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Jim Smart rests on the back of his vehicle after evacuating with two of his prized motorcycles during the Creek fire in Madera County, California on September 7, 2020. Source: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images.

This long weekend was literal hell for millions in the American West. California, Nevada, Arizona, Oregon, and Washington are suffering from dangerous heat, wildfire and smoke unlike anything they’ve ever seen.

Scientists attribute the unprecedented intensity of these events to human-caused climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions have made the atmosphere in these areas much hotter and drier than it used to be. “We’re living in a fundamentally climate-altered world,” MIT Technology Review noted last month, citing a multitude of peer-reviewed research about how climate change exacerbates extreme heat and wildfire. These so-called “compound climate events” are only predicted to get worse if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated.

Every American should be aware of these basic scientific facts when reading about the devastation of this weekend’s record-breaking extreme weather. But most of the major newspaper stories about the Labor Day Weekend from Hell don’t contain any climate-related information. Why?

Three major newspaper stories. Zero climate mentions.

Section A, page 12 of today’s New York Times contains a big story about the unprecedented weather pummeling California. Titled Extreme Heat Turns State Into a Furnace,” the piece contains more than 1,700 words of devastating detail about how heat, fire, and toxic air are affecting people in the state. But none of those details were about why things are getting so bad. None of those words were “climate change.”

The Associated Press’s article today is similar. Titled “Scorched earth: Record 2 million acres burned in California,” it contains 1,100 words about the weather’s unprecedented nature. It lists several different record-breaking data points, and quotes state officials saying how “unnerving” it is to have broken these records so early in the wildfire season. And yet this article—which will be re-published this morning in newspapers across the country—also does not mention the reason why these records might be happening.

The Washington Post also has an article about unprecedented climate change-fueled extreme weather on its front page this morning, but it doesn’t mention climate change’s role. It’s about how 50 hikers are trapped inside a shelter within a rapidly-growing 130,000 acre wildfire, unable to be rescued. “This is one of the largest and most dangerous fires in the history of Fresno County,” the local fire chief said. “I don’t think everyone understands that.”

Newspapers often ignore basic climate science in extreme weather stories

News outlets like the Times, the Post, and the AP have climate reporting teams. These teams all publish important stories about how the climate crisis fuels extreme weather across the country. The Times in particular has increased its climate coverage substantially in the last few years, according to data from the University of Colorado Boulder.

A chart shows how many articles about climate change major news outlets published every month from 2000 to 2020. The number of articles from most outlets peaked in 2019 before dropping in 2020. Source: University of Colorado Boulder.

But these stories are, for the most part, stand-alone stories. The facts contained within them are not often integrated into daily coverage of extreme weather events. When climate-fueled extreme weather events happen—when people are most likely to pay attention to climate-related news—climate reporters are usually not the ones assigned to cover the story. General assignment or local area reporters are, and they are edited by non-climate editors.

This isn’t always the case. At the Post, for example, the Capital Weather Gang often covers extreme weather and cites the climate reasons behind it. The piece they did yesterday on California’s wildfires ends with these two succinct paragraphs:

Studies show human-caused climate change is tilting the odds in favor of more frequent, severe and longer-lasting heat waves, as well as larger wildfires throughout large parts of the West. Research published last month, for example, shows climate change is tied to more frequent occurrences of extreme-fire-risk days in parts of California during the fall. (Meteorologists define the fall as beginning Sept. 1.)

Some recent climate studies have shown that extreme heat events in parts of the world would most likely not have occurred were it not for the human-caused increase in greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, from the burning of oil and gas for energy.

But this is the exception, not the rule. For the most part, mainstream news outlets still aren’t integrating basic climate science facts in their stories about record-breaking extreme weather. This extends beyond newspapers, and beyond heat waves and wildfires.

A continued abdication of journalistic responsibility

The repeated and prolonged failure of mainstream news outlets to include basic climate science facts in extreme weather coverage is an abdication of their core responsibility: to give citizens the information they need to make informed decisions about how to solve society’s biggest problems.

Human-caused climate change is modern society’s biggest problem. Its scope and threat to human life and prosperity are unmatched. Climate change is already exacerbating every single one of society’s existing problems: racism, income inequality, war and conflict, and the pandemic, among others. Left unchecked, it will continue to worsen all of these problems; scientists say it will cause more deaths than all infectious diseases combined.

To solve this problem, citizens need every single one of the 5 journalistic Ws—the who, what, when, where, and why. When it comes to coverage of unprecedented extreme weather, our mainstream news outlets are regularly refusing to provide the why. The result is that readers believe that there is no explanation for the horrors playing out across their country; that the devastation they are reading about is simply nature taking its course. This is an objective, scientific falsehood. It’s worth asking why our most venerated truth-tellers continue to perpetuate it.

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