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Burning in Silence: U.S. Media Falls Short on Connecting Wildfires and Climate Change

Aug. 9, 2018

Burning in Silence: U.S. Media Falls Short on Connecting Wildfires and Climate Change

Media Is Failing to Report Evidence Connecting Climate Change to Increasingly Destructive Wildfires

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The media is largely failing to adequately connect the latest raging wildfires to climate change, a new Public Citizen analysis (PDF) finds.

Extreme heat, drought conditions and longer warm seasons – all events linked to a warming planet – increase the risk of wildfire, including those currently ravaging California. Following the state’s hottest summer in history in 2017, more bone-dry conditions this year prompted an unusually early start to fire season. In July 2018, record-breaking temperatures scorched California once again and set the stage for some of the largest and most destructive fires in the state’s history.

Of 862 pieces mentioning wildfires between July 23 and Aug. 7, only 109 (12.6 percent) also mentioned climate change or global warming, Public Citizen’s survey of the top 50 U.S. newspapers by circulation found.

The three newspapers that produced the most pieces connecting the wildfires to climate change were The New York Times (17 articles), The Sacramento Bee (16 articles) and the Los Angeles Times (15 articles). Among newspapers in California mentioning wildfires, fewer than 10 percent of the pieces made the connection to global warming.

Of the 296 broadcast transcripts from ABC, CBS, Fox News Network, MSNBC and NBC, only 32, or about 11 percent of pieces, also mentioned climate change. In absolute terms, the best performing network was CNN, with 20 transcripts discussing how the wildfires were spurred by a hotter, drier climate.

“Clearly, reporters are covering these record fires, the destruction they are causing and the difficulty in containing them. But rarely are papers delving into how we are making the fires worse by fueling climate change, or how we can change course,” said David Arkush, managing director of Public Citizen’s Climate Program. “When outlets fail to connect these events to global warming, audiences are left uninformed that climate change is already here, impacting millions of Americans, and will rapidly worsen if we don’t act quickly.”