Summer is just starting, and already we are smashing heat records. Last month, we experienced the second hottest April since 1880, marking the 412th consecutive month with global temperatures above the 20th century average. The Southeast is expecting near-record or record heat over the Memorial Day weekend. These developments follow a disturbing long-term trend: Each of the past 42 years has been warmer than the 20th century average. The hottest year on record was 2016, with 2015, 2017 and 2018 close behind. Eighteen of the 19 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000. Based on current anomalies and historical temperature readings, 2019 is expected to be a top-10 year, with a 99.7% chance of being in the top five.
U.S. Media Have a Critical Role to Play by Covering the Climate Crisis But Fell Short in 2018, 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-three percent of Americans believe climate change is real; 65% believe it already is affecting the weather; 62% believe it is caused by humans; 69% say they are at least “somewhat worried” about it; and the same percentage say they are “interested” in it.
The climate crisis has become an important issue for voters. Sixty-two percent believe the environment should be a top priority of the president and Congress, with 46% advocating for climate change specifically. Climate was the second-highest ranking issue for Democratic voters in a recent Monmouth University poll and the highest ranking in a recent CNN poll, with 96% of Democratic voters saying it is at least “very important” that a candidate supports “taking aggressive action to slow the effects of climate change.”
Media coverage on the climate crisis is far too scarce for such an important, popular issue. Only 56% of Americans report hearing about climate change in the media even once a month. This is an improvement from 43% in early 2018, but still low in relation to the threat posed by the climate crisis.
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 report and editorialize on the climate crisis. Indeed, 61% of Americans already report being at least “a little worried” about extreme heat in their local area.
A Public Citizen survey of the top 50 U.S. newspapers by circulation* found that just 33% of 2018 articles mentioning record or extreme heat also mentioned climate change. This is a slight improvement over 2017 when the rate was 28%. The rate was higher on online news sites, with 38% of articles mentioning climate change, a 1% drop from 2017. The rate was lowest on television networks, where only 22% of television news segments on extreme heat also mentioned climate-related terms. This too is an improvement from 2017, when only 10% of segments on extreme heat mentioned climate.
In a 12-day period from June 27 to July 8, more than 400 daily maximum temperature records were broken in localities in 37 states, and four states set all-time temperature records. In 13 states in which 10 or more heat records were broken during this period, just 26 of 673 newspaper articles on heat (3.9%) mentioned climate. This was a decline of 66% from the coverage of heat in 2018 leading up to that 12-day period. National programming from ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News Network and MSNBC produced 114 pieces on heat during this period, but only one piece mentioned climate change.
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 historical 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 warming, biasing the comparison.
Reporters also can watch for potential signals of warming, 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 the climate crisis 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.
Sophisticated attribution studies now allow scientists to identify and quantify the part human-caused climate change plays in many types of extreme weather, including heat waves. The Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science found that the deadly heat event that took place from May to July 2018 across the Northern Hemisphere – from Canada and the United States to Russia, Japan and South Korea – could not have occurred without human-induced climate change.
A separate attribution study of the 2018 heat wave in Europe concluded that global warming made the event twice as likely as it would have been in a climate unaltered by humans.
Attribution studies not only provide certainty in the connection between climate change and extreme weather but also give reporters the opportunity to follow up and provide their audiences with more conclusive information about the role of the climate crisis.
Rising Temperatures Cause Severe Harm
Heat is dangerous. It 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 be longer, more frequent and more intense. One recent analysis projects that summertime deaths in the U.S. could rise to nearly 30,000 per year by the 2090s. Excessive heat exposure can also result in heat exhaustion, with symptoms such as nausea, headaches, and dehydration, and exacerbate other health problems like asthma and heart disease.
As record-breaking summer temperatures become the norm, people in a wide variety of outdoor and indoor workplaces, as well as other vulnerable populations (children, elders, pregnant women, and low-income individuals without access to climate-controlled environments), are at increased risk. A Public Citizen report found that during the July 4, 2018 week, an average of more than 2.2 million construction and farm workers labored in extreme heat each day.
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 damage 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% of U.S. growth, over the next decade.
These are just some of the harms caused by the overheating of our planet, 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% 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.
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% renewable energy sources. The current debate among experts is whether we can transition to 100% renewables with existing technology in a few decades or whether we can get to just 80%. 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. The main drivers of cost 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. All of this is without including the incalculably large economic benefits of avoiding catastrophic climate change.
The time for small-scale responses has passed. Climate science tells us that preventing catastrophic harm requires, at a minimum, cutting global greenhouse gas pollution in half by 2030 and eliminating it by 2050. (And for equity reasons, the U.S. arguably should proceed much more quickly, as it is responsible for a vastly disproportionate amount of all carbon pollution.) Rapid decarbonization will require unprecedented effort – an ambitious, assertive set of policies that transform the U.S. economy to run on renewable energy instead of fossil fuels.
Plans like the Green New Deal resolution sponsored by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and U.S. Sen. Ed Markey outline most of what is needed: achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by generating 100% of the nation’s electricity from clean, renewable sources; upgrading buildings and transportation infrastructure; increasing energy efficiency; and investing in green technology research, development and training.
But the news media rarely connect the climate crisis with solutions. In 2018, only 8% of newspaper articles, 5% of television transcripts and 16% of online news articles discussing climate change mentioned solutions. A December 2018 survey found that 81% of registered voters supported the goals of the Green New Deal, although only 17% reported hearing anything about the policy. Coverage by national broadcast news was slim, and among the top 50 U.S. newspapers, half never printed the words “Green New Deal” in 2018.
Coverage has improved in the new year, and by April 2019, awareness had increased to 58%. However, support decreased among Republicans after relentless attacks by right-wing media. A study by Yale and George Mason University researchers found that Republicans who watch, read, or listen to Fox News more frequently were less likely to support the resolution than those who watched less frequently or never.
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.