The Battle for the Media and Meteorology: The Politics of the Thermometer

While many adjectives fit the recent colossal dump of over 90 inches of snow in Buffalo, New York, very few mainstream news stations used the term “human-driven climate change.” While scientists from around the world and UN organizations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the World Meteorological Organization all agree that human-driven climate change is one of the biggest threats humankind has faced, the majority of broadcast meteorologists seem to be silent on this topic.

Many people who refute global warming and climate change point to cold temperatures and toss terms such as polar vortex as evidence that climate change is a hoax. As seen in the recent IPCC Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report, sea levels are rising and oceans and lakes are warming. In addition, droughts, floods, wildfires, and weather will become more extreme due to climate change from burning fossil fuels. Matthew E. Kirby, Cal State Fullerton associate professor of geological sciences confirms that climate change is happening and that more dramatic lake-effect weather as seen in Buffalo will continue to occur. Meteorologist who writes for Slate, Eric Holthaus, is confident global warming is boosting lake-effect snows, which caused the deadly storm in Buffalo. In an interview on Democracy Now! on Nov. 20, 2014, Holthaus elaborated on the connection between climate change and extreme weather:

[…] climate change is boosting the amount of energy that’s available in the atmosphere, in general, by heating the atmosphere, retrapping the sun’s incoming energy, and then that kind of gives an extra boost into these kind of weather systems. So when you’re talking about – when you’re talking about drought or extreme precipitation, in general, what climate change will do will make the wet days wetter, and it will make the dry periods more dry. So, again, this lake-effect snow is one example of that.

Holthaus also mentioned that he believes climate denial and the lack of discussion of climate change on mainstream news stations boils down to politics. And where there’s politics, there is money and while the majority of climate deniers are conservatives, liberals are not innocent either. Democratic Governor of Colorado John Hickenlooper is notorious for his pro hydraulic fracturing views and has even threatened to sue cities that pass moratoriums on fracking. At the Governor Candidate Forum at Auraria Campus on October 28, 2014, Hickenlooper neglected to use the term climate change and instead used euphemisms such as strange weather and Federally declared disasters for record flooding in Colorado in 2013 along with wildfires and droughts. Before the Keystone XL pipeline legislation was narrowly rejected, Democrat, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu led a rally to push the pipeline through, even though scientists such as James Hansen have claimed it would be ecocide. Lee Fang, journalist for The Nation has written extensively about how Republicans are funded by the Koch brothers and fossil fuel companies while many Democrats are funded by the natural gas lobbyAmerica’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA). On the other side of the fence of ridiculousness, which seems it could be in the sequel to the movie Idiocracy, is climate change denier Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, will most likely be the next chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. In addition, on November 18, 2014, the House passed a bill that would reform the EPA’s science panel to allow for industry funded experts to weigh in on regulations. However, many fear that scientists will be censored, the Union of Concerned Scientists director Andrew Rosenberg recently stated in an editorial on Roll Call, “This bill would make it easier for experts with ties to corporations affected by new rules to serve on the SAB while excluding independent scientists from talking about their own research.”

Despite extreme weather on the rise and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reporting that 2014 is en route to being the hottest year on record since 1880, discussion of climate change by meteorologists and newscasters is also in a drought. A recent report by Media Matters found that the historic 400,000 people climate march in New York during the week of September 22, 2014 was barely covered by mainstream media. When compared, CNN ranked at the bottom with 37 minutes of coverage, while Fox had 80 minutes (mostly calling climate change a hoax) and MSNBC had 115 minutes. When compared to independent media, Democracy Now! broadcasted 180 minutes in a row live from the march on Sep. 21, 2014. As reported in Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, citing Douglas Fischer,”[…] despite a rise in extreme weather: in 2007, the three major U.S. networks – CBS, NBC, and ABC – ran 147 stories on climate change; in 2011 the networks ran just fourteen stories on the subject.” Douglas Fischer’s recent report on The Daily Climate displays a 30 percent increase in climate change related themes by journalists, but still shows dismal coverage by major US networks with 30 stories in 2013.

In November, I e-mailed every major network meteorologist in Colorado and asked them about human-caused climate change and its relation to extreme weather along with why climate change is rarely mentioned on their networks or by them when mentioning record breaking weather. While almost all of them didn’t write back or said they’d rather speak on the phone, but didn’t return my calls, one 9 News meteorologist wrote back explaining the climate has been changing for 4.5 billion years and there is no wayto identify anthropogenic causeswith weather, which contradicts studies by IPCC, World Health Organization and the NOAA. When asked on Twitter why a 7 News meteorologist doesn’t speak about the connection of extreme weather to climate change, he replied, “haha” and his news station favorited his tweet!

However, one broadcast meteorologist does accept climate change science and he does seek to educate others about the enormity of human-driven climate change. Chief Meteorologist for the Denver Channel Mike Nelson is in agreement that human-driven climate change is scientifically provenand that it can affect extreme weather. Last year, Yale Climate Connections posted a two part series (part 1,part 2) about Nelson’s views on climate change wherein he stated, “My conclusion from my studies is that we humans are indeed having a measureable impact on the warming of our climate, and these impacts are making weather events more extreme. With a greater amount of energy in the climate system, there will be drier droughts, heavier rains (although more spotty), bigger winter storms, and more powerful and severe weather events.” Nelson concluded his thoughts stating, “We will need to urge our leaders to take action to inspire the development of both new and cleaner ways to produce energy. Whatever the outcome of continuing science dialog and debates, we will still be better off, as will our grandchildren for whom we will have helped advance the technology to produce cleaner, renewable and more varied energy sources.”

Although climate change reporting is increasing in publications such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The Guardian, major US networks are not increasing their reporting. The majority of the population receives their news and information from the morning or evening news and when euphemisms such as extreme, biblical, crazy, mind-boggling, strange, and recording-breaking are used without the explanation of climate change, the population is being misinformed. The news has a wide influence and what is reported often frames public debate and policy concern. While there is no evidence that US meteorologists are prohibited from speaking about climate change in public as indicated in Canada, the lack of climate change discussion by mainstream news outlets and meteorologists is still climate change denial by omission.