As Summer Begins, Connect the Dots Between Extreme Heat and Climate Change
Extreme Heat and Record-Breaking Heat Are Linked to Climate Change
Summer is just starting, and already we are smashing heat records. In May 2018, every state in the U.S. experienced above-average temperatures, and eight set records. We experienced not only the warmest May on record, but also the warmest three-, four- and five-year periods on record. These developments follow a disturbing long-term trend: The hottest year on record was 2016, with 2015 and 2017 close behind. Seventeen of the hottest 18 years on record have occurred since 2001, and people born after 1977 have never experienced a year in which temperatures were below the 20th century average.
Temperatures have risen about 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels, and it scarcely could be clearer that human greenhouse gas pollution is the cause. The U.S. National Climate Assessment states, “there is no convincing alternative explanation.”
U.S. Media Have a Critical Role to Play by Covering Climate Change But Fell Short in 2017 – Especially on Connecting the Issue to Record Heat
The magnitude of the climate crisis, coupled with the availability of solutions, merits constant, high-quality media coverage to educate the public and spur robust discussion.
Audiences will be receptive. Seventy percent of Americans believe climate change is real; 61 percent believe it already is affecting the weather; 58 percent believe it is caused by humans; 62 percent say they are at least “somewhat worried” about it; and the same percentage say they are “interested” in it. At present, however, the issue is a low priority to most Americans because most believe the threat it poses still is distant. Most think it primarily will hurt people in developing nations or far in the future. They don’t realize how urgent and grave the problem is even here in the U.S.
The dearth of media coverage plays a role in that complacency. Only 43 percent of Americans report hearing about climate change in the media at least once a month. That absence has downstream consequences. Only 20 percent report hearing people they know talk about climate change once a month or more, and 22 percent say they never hear people talk about it. In the words of Yale and George Mason University researchers, there is a “spiral of silence” on climate change in which “even people who care about the issue shy away from discussing it because they so infrequently hear other people talking about it – reinforcing the spiral.”
The media has a critical role to play in breaking the spiral of silence. And the summer months, during which dangerously hot days and extended heat waves affect most of the U.S. at some point, provide the easiest and most obvious context in which to begin reporting and editorializing on climate change more often. Indeed, 64 percent of Americans already report being at least “a little worried” about extreme heat in their local area.
A recent Public Citizen survey of the top 50 U.S. newspapers by circulation* and ABC, CBS, Fox News Network, MSNBC and NBC found that, out of 230 pieces mentioning record heat or record heat waves in 2017, only 50 (21.7 percent) mentioned climate change or global warming. Similarly, just 64 of 323 pieces (19.8 percent) that included the phrase “extreme heat” also mentioned climate change or global warming.** One would not expect every article on record heat to mention climate change, but a rate of roughly one in five is far too few.
Ways to Connect Extreme Heat and Climate Change
According to Climate Signals, reporters can raise the topic of global warming in the context of a heat event by considering how the event compares to historic averages, as well as discussing how global warming is changing the averages over time. Consider comparisons to the 30-year average observed from 1951 to 1980; this is a standard weather reference period that occurred during a relatively stable climate era, before a surge of changes in the past 40 years. More recent averages will include the effects of much more climate change, biasing the comparison.
Reporters also can watch for potential signals of climate change, including heat waves that:
- are especially severe;
- are longer than usual;
- are earlier or later in the season than usual;
- raise the total number of hotter-than-average days for the year above the long-term average for the year to date;
- involve unusually hot nights; or
- break records.
These all are indicators that climate change may be playing a role in a particular heat event. In most cases, it is. Globally, four in five record-hot days are driven in part by global warming.
Good sources for weather records include local meteorologists, the National Weather Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Centers for Environmental Information.
Finally, attribution studies rarely are conducted for heat events. But when they are done, they provide reporters the opportunity to follow up and provide their audiences more conclusive information about the role of climate change.
Rising Temperatures Cause Severe Harm
Heat kills more Americans annually than any other weather-related hazard, possibly as many as 1,300 per year. As temperatures rise, heat waves will continue to last longer, be more frequent and be more intense. One recent analysis projects that summertime deaths in the U.S. could rise by nearly 2,100 percent by the 2090s, to nearly 30,000 per year.
Increased heat also contributes to other major climate harms:
- It makes hurricanes more damaging.
- It can increase both drought and heavy downpours, or in some places even both, in a feast-or-famine rain pattern. Heavier downpours increase the risk of flooding.
- Warmer and drier conditions result in larger and more damaging wildfires.
Together, these climate changes cause harms like:
- staggeringly costly direct damage (more than $306 billion worth in 2017 alone);
- severe harm to agriculture, harming the economy, raising food prices and contributing to hunger;
- increased risk for workers and sharply reduced labor capacity;
- poorer air quality, causing more cardiovascular and respiratory illness; and
- economic costs that are expected to rise to $360 billion per year, equivalent to 55 percent of U.S. growth, over the next decade.
These are just some of the harms caused by global warming, and this is by no means an exhaustive list. It is important not to lose sight of the big picture: Collectively, the direct damage, megadroughts, famine, species loss, mass migration and increased conflict from runaway global warming could threaten human civilization before the end of this century. On our present path, we face at least a 5 percent chance of “catastrophic” warming (more than 3°C/5.4°F) by 2050, and an equal chance by 2100 of warming so terrible (more than 5°C/9°F) that we cannot count on most humans surviving.
Solutions Are Available
At the same time, we know how to solve most of the problem. The most significant steps are making everything possible run on electricity and converting the electric grid to 100 percent renewable energy sources. The current debate among experts is whether we can transition to 100 percent renewables with existing technology in a few decades or whether we can get to just 80 percent. Meanwhile, new studies show it increasingly is possible to power an electric grid entirely with renewables. Far from causing hardship, this energy transformation will pay for itself many times over in short order – and that is without even including the incalculably large economic benefits of avoiding catastrophic climate change. The main drivers of savings are avoiding the $875 billion per year that Americans waste buying fossil fuels and several hundred billion more in medical costs that result from fossil fuel air pollution.
This summer, we urge you to connect the dots between extreme heat and climate change.
* The newspapers are: Arizona Republic, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Baltimore Sun, Boston Globe, Buffalo News, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, Cincinnati Enquirer, Columbus Dispatch, Dallas Morning News, Denver Post, Detroit Free Press, East Bay Times, Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Houston Chronicle, Indianapolis Star, Kansas City Star, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Los Angeles Times, Mercury News, Miami Herald, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, New York Daily News, New York Post, New York Times, Newsday, Oklahoman, Omaha World-Herald, Orange County Register, Oregonian, Portland, Orlando Sentinel, Philadelphia Inquirer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Plain Dealer, Sacramento Bee, San Diego Union-Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Star Tribune, Star-Ledger, Sun-Sentinel, Tampa Bay Times, Times-Picayune, USA Today, Virginian-Pilot, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.
** For record heat or record heat waves, we searched these sources in Westlaw or Lexis for (“heat record” OR “heat records” OR “record heat” OR “record heat wave”). For extreme heat, we used the phrase “extreme heat.”