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The real story behind ABC's Hawaii headline change
They didn't change it because of activist backlash. They changed it because it was inaccurate.
Earlier this week, ABC News published an article with the headline: “Why Climate Change Can’t Be Blamed for the Maui Wildfires.”
It pissed me off. So I tweeted about it. And soon I was chatting with the scientist whose comments were the main basis for the piece.
Near the top of ABC’s article, UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain had been quoted as saying, “We should not look to the Maui wildfires as a poster child of the link to climate change."
The quote was taken from one of Swain’s YouTube livestreams, and was a major supporting point for ABC’s claim that climate change “can’t be blamed” for the Maui wildfires.
But in his replies to my thread, Swain said he shared my frustrations. He said the ABC report took his statement out of context.
Swain was not saying that climate change played no role in the Maui wildfires, he clarified. He was saying there were many factors that worsened the complex disaster, and that climate change shouldn’t be the only thing blamed.
Swain added that ABC’s headline was “ill-posed” and “reductive”—and exactly the kind of oversimplification he was advocating against during his livestream.
Meanwhile, in emails to HEATED, other climate scientists expressed similar frustrations with ABC’s article. Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M University, called the framing “irritating.”
“Disasters are almost never solely due to climate change,” he said. “The real question is what role climate change is playing, and the article seems to be minimizing the role of climate change, a choice that's not supported by any analysis.”
“This is awful,” said Michael Mann, a climate scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. “Cherry-picking various individuals and making blanket statements like this [are] completely unsupportable.”
(You can find the full responses from the three climate scientists I reached out to at the bottom of this article).
In sum, the scientists explained that the headline was technically incorrect. Climate change absolutely can be partially blamed for the severity of the Maui disaster because climate change worsens wildfires, and climate change plays a role in literally all weather events. We just don’t yet know how much blame, because we don’t yet have attribution studies that can tell us that sort of thing.
But more importantly, the article’s framing was a straw man fallacy. It distorted the concern scientists and activists actually have about climate change and extreme weather, which is that climate change worsens disasters; not that it causes them.
By Tuesday, it appeared ABC had heard these concerns loud and clear. Both the headline and first sentence were changed to reflect the critiques scientists were making. Where the article used to read: “Why climate change can’t be blamed” for the wildfires, it now read: “Why climate change can’t be blamed entirely.”
ABC did not add an editorial correction noting the changes, and did not respond to our request for comment by publication. But screenshots document that the changes were, in fact, made.
There were still factual problems with the article following the changes. For instance, it also claimed “climate change is not to blame for Maui's drought conditions.” (More on why that’s misleading below, from Dr. Kate Marvel)
But the major problem of framing had been fixed, and on Tuesday, I considered that a cool indication that the crumbling public square that used to be Twitter can still be a useful tool for media accountability—even if I was a little overly-heated about the whole thing. (Pun intended).
Unfortunately, the next day, things started to get stupid again.
On Wednesday, Fox News ran an article about ABC’s article and headline change. Primarily featuring my tweet thread, it claimed “climate activists” had “objected” to it and pressured ABC to make the edits.
Of course, Fox did not quote any scientists, or mention Swain’s replies to the thread saying it was inaccurate. Instead, Fox just focused the attention on me, and then quoted a conservative reporter from the Daily Signal, who claimed ABC changed the article “because a pack of angry baristas didn't like the data.”
Hours later, that same Daily Signal reporter, Tony Kinnett, published his own article, claiming the “Left’s Complaints” had forced ABC’s change. He said the report “received considerable backlash from the Left on social media.” As proof, he linked to…my tweet. Apparently I am The Left.
But here’s the thing: I’m not The Left. I’m a climate reporter who has become insanely tired of repeating the same shit for the last decade. I am certainly a pretty left-leaning person; I’ve never shied from letting you know my values. But that’s not what is motivating my rage.
It was literally in 2014 that I wrote my first article explaining that climate change is never to blame for extreme weather, but that it creates the conditions for extreme weather to become even worse. That was the first time I ever used this quote from climate scientist Kevin Trenberth, which I’ve tried to use again and again over the years: “The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question. All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be.”
So forgive me if sometimes I get a little angry that after nearly 10 years some mainstream climate reporters still don’t understand this basic fact.
I expect bad-faith misinterpretations from places like Fox and the Daily Signal. Like this quote from the Daily Signal’s piece: “There’s currently no evidence that suggests climate change…played a role in the Hawaiian wildfires.” Like yeah, no shit Tony. Scientists can’t produce an attribution study in one week. It’s gonna take a while to know climate change’s exact role in these wildfires. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t play a role. You’d know that if you ever spoke to one living mainstream climate scientist, or read one actual peer-reviewed paper.
But I expect more from places like ABC. Because their misunderstanding not only misinforms their readers, but provides fodder for deniers like Daily Signal Tony to further inflame them.
Full reactions from climate scientists to ABC’s article
Andrew Dessler, climate scientist at Texas A&M University:
That's an irritating article. Here are my thoughts: Disasters are almost never solely due to climate change. Fires require ignition (not due to climate change) and they also require the right weather (windy, hot, dry). Climate change contributes to this fire weather, but random weather events (e.g., a nearby hurricane) also play an important role. So it's not unreasonable to say that the fires cannot be entirely blamed on climate change, but it's also not particularly useful. The real question is what role climate change is playing, and the article seems to be minimizing the role of climate change, a choice that's not supported by any analysis.
Overall, the world is non-linear, and what we're seeing is that climate change is pushing us past thresholds, leading to rapidly escalating impacts. Thus, a relatively small change in climate can end up driving very large changes in fires & large changes in damages. Obviously, I can't say anything quantitative about this particular fire until more analysis is done, but I wouldn't be surprised if it turns out that climate change made the event a lot worse.
Kate Marvel, climate scientist at Project Drawdown:
I actually think there’s a lot of good nuance in this article, but I have a BIIIIIIG problem with this statement:
“Anthropogenic climate change is not to blame for Maui's drought conditions either.”
What this means is that the “signal” of external influence on the climate hasn’t unambiguously emerged from the “noise” of internal variability. The Hawaiian islands experience drought naturally. But Hawaii has experienced a decrease in precipitation since the 1980s, and projections indicate that the wet windward sides of the islands will get rainier while the dry leeward sides will get drier.
Beyond that, warmer air drives more evaporation and dries the surface, and we know the Hawaiian islands have gotten warmer. I’d think of it like this: suppose someone gets accused of a crime and is generally really shady and has a history of bad behavior. It’s perfectly possible that there won’t be enough evidence to convict him beyond a reasonable doubt. But this doesn’t automatically mean he’s completely innocent.
Beyond that, I feel like this exposes flaws in the “we’ll just adapt to climate change!” idea. Adapt to what? Climate change isn’t just one thing—it makes downpours and droughts more likely, strengthens hurricanes, raises sea levels, and warms days and nights. When the world gets warm, weird stuff happens. And until the world reaches net zero emissions, it’s just going to keep getting warmer, making adaptation a moving target.
I think it’s important to note that the factors that contributed to the Maui tragedy— invasive vegetation, the urban/wildland interface, governmental failures, a history of colonialism—are evidence that climate change doesn’t just happen in a computer model, it happens in the real world, which is a mess. Adaptation is necessary—we have no choice at this point—but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that it won’t be a long, frustrating, dangerous process.
Michael Mann, climate scientist at University of Pennsylvania:
This is awful. cherry-picking various individuals and making blanket statement like this which are completely unsupportable:
This paragraph contains false statements (italicized) and mutually inconsistent statements (bold)
Although drought contributed to the severity of the fires, anthropogenic climate change is not to blame for Maui's drought conditions either. Drought is not uncommon in Hawaii, which is currently in its dry season. Parts of Maui, including much of the island's west coast, are currently under severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Parts of Maui have been experiencing "SEVERE DROUGHT” for more than a month.
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