American Media Fails to Contextualize Climate-Intensified Disasters


Theo Wayt, Contributing Writer

Most American news outlets, no matter their political leanings, seem to emulate our president’s erratic, unfocused, 140-characters-or-less style. Breaking news flows like a Twitter feed — an uninterrupted stream of unfocused, questionably-relevant information — leaving little room for informed discussions of systematic forces behind sensational headlines.

This limited journalistic attention-span acutely shows itself through coverage of hurricanes Harvey and Irma. News outlets focus on attention-grabbing tidbits: dramatic survivors’ stories, kaleidoscopic weather maps, breathtaking images of waterless beaches and palms flailing in the wind. Drawing attention to these storms as immediate, tragic events is undeniably important, but news outlets that feature only these stories fail to fully contextualize weather events because they omit an existentially important ingredient: climate change.

Because it is impossible to precisely quantify climate change’s storm-specific impact in extra inches of floodwater or additional mph of wind, one must look to broader trends. In the words of writer Naomi Klein, “record-breaking weather events are happening with such regularity that ‘record-breaking’ has become a meteorological cliche.” She’s right: Harvey has been widely reported as a 1,000-year flood — that is, a flood that the insurance industry says has a 1/1,000 chance of occurring in a given area each year. Based on this information alone, Harvey appears to be a dreadful but nonetheless inevitable tragedy. However, Houston experienced 500-year floods in both 2015 and 2016. Do the residents of Houston simply suffer from odds-defying bad luck? Or are these standards outdated in our rapidly-warming world? Is it insensitive to ask these questions so soon?

Just as people who questioned American military policy post 9/11 were labeled anti-American or told they don’t support our troops, individuals who protest climate-degrading governmental and corporate behavior in the wake of these storms may be accused of politicizing a disaster. But with the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters — Harvey and Irma hit a week apart, after all — it seems the present may always be considered too soon. If the media continues to cover these storms in an allegedly neutral and depoliticized manner, filling space with trivial stories about Ted Cruz’s alleged porn habit instead of conversations about climate science or our withdrawal from the Paris Accords, they are doing the American public a catastrophic disservice. Klein writes that this incomplete coverage “leaves the public with the false impression that these are disasters without root causes, which also means that nothing could have been done to prevent them (and that nothing can be done now to prevent them from getting much worse in the future).”

Whether we deny it or not, the terrifying, world-altering effects of climate change will dominate the 21st century. And if we ignore humanity’s role, treating these ever-intensifying hurricanes as exclusively acts of God, then we will soon reach the tipping point when the never-ending escalation of quasi-natural catastrophe truly becomes inescapable. We cannot follow the leadership — or lack thereof — provided by President Trump, who dodges climate-related questions and points out that “we’ve had bigger storms” as he continues to gut the EPA following withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords. Instead, the American media must take a science-based approach and raise public awareness of our obscene greenhouse gas emissions and their catastrophic effects, including the intensification of Harvey and Irma. Only then will we Americans take substantive steps toward saving ourselves.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 18 print edition. Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them. Email Theo Wayt [email protected]