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As Hurricane Florence Bears Down, National Media Should Connect the Dots to Climate Change

Sept. 12, 2018


As Hurricane Florence Bears Down, National Media Should Connect the Dots to Climate Change

Climate Change Makes Hurricanes More Frequent, More Intense, More Damaging

Hurricane Florence is expected to hit the Carolina coast this week as an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane. Like Hurricane Harvey, Florence is expected to stall when it makes landfall, dumping large quantities of rain that heighten the risk of flooding. For this reason, Weather Underground co-founder Jeff Masters noted that Florence could be “Harvey of the East Coast.” And as with Harvey, the national media has been slow to discuss climate change in the context of the storm.

In the aftermath of Harvey, five different attribution studies found that global warming added to the deluge of rain dumped by the storm, causing up to 38 percent of Harvey’s total rainfall. Harvey also was followed by an extraordinary series of subsequent hurricanes – Irma, Marie and Nate. Yet a Public Citizen survey of the top U.S. newspapers and TV news networks found that fewer than five percent of the 21,177 pieces mentioning Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria or Nate in 2017 mentioned climate change or global warming.

It is understandable and appropriate that a significant proportion of reporting in impacted areas would focus on emergency preparations, storm impacts and disaster response. But it is still appropriate for local media to raise the connection to climate change. Notably, our study of the first eight days of Harvey reporting found that the Houston Chronicle was one of the top papers both in the number of times it mentioned of climate change and in the number of climate-related subjects discussed. The national media has an even greater obligation to make the connection.

It is critical that media connect the dots between climate change and extreme weather, which already is killing thousands of Americans and causing hundreds of billions worth of damage annually.

The science is clear. More intense and damaging hurricanes are a symptom of climate change, caused by extraordinary greenhouse gas pollution that has altered our planet’s atmosphere far beyond anything in human history. Global warming does not “cause” hurricanes directly, but rather makes them more frequent, intense and more damaging. Not all tropical storms are evidence of climate change. But a storm like Florence is a climate story for multiple reasons, not least because the climate science predicts that we will experience more frequent and more intense hurricanes like Florence if we fail to curb greenhouse gas pollution.

The U.S. National Climate Assessment in late 2017 reaffirmed that global warming is expected to increase the number and intensity of tropical storms. It also reported that, in line with the predictions of climate scientists, the evidence suggests that humans “have contributed to the observed increase in hurricane activity [in the Atlantic Ocean] since the 1970s.” And it reported that the locations where tropical storm intensity peaks in the northern and southern hemisphere have moved toward the Earth’s poles over the past 30 years.

Climate change intensifies hurricanes or makes them more damaging in at least four ways. First, warmer air holds more moisture, leading to heavier rainfall. Second, higher sea levels lead to higher storm surges, which are more disastrous and affect wider geographical areas. Third, warmer water leads to stronger winds and may cause hurricanes to intensify more rapidly. Atlantic sea surface temperatures are 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than normal. And fourth, climate change is altering the jet stream in ways that result in tropical cyclones moving slowly or stalling and dumping more water on affected areas, as Harvey did in Texas and Florence is projected to do in North Carolina.

Hurricanes no longer can be treated as purely “natural” disasters. Humans are playing a role in making tropical storms more frequent and damaging. It is critical that media report that role – and how we can change course – so that the public and policy makers have information they need to make decisions about our collective future.

Climate scientists are standing by to help your reporting, and Public Citizen can connect you to them. In addition, many online resources are available, such as this guidance from Climate Signals. Please contact any of the individuals listed above to speak with an expert.