Post-Florence, The Fourth Estate Must Expand Its Climate Coverage

Once the water recedes, the excuses must recede as well.

After the devastation and death wrought by Hurricane Florence, American print, broadcast and cable media outlets have a journalistic obligation to expand its coverage of the existential crisis of human-caused climate change. No longer can we tolerate having extensive coverage of extreme weather without that coverage being placed in a climate context.

It was gratifying to see some connection of the climate dots as Florence’s ferocity hit the Carolinas. PBS spoke with climate scientist Radley Horton about the abnormal aggression of this hurricane, and MSNBC ran two strong segments about how human-caused climate change strengthens the severity of storms, both featuring the television personality Bill Nye. The Washington Post provided meteorologist Eric Holthaus an opportunity to highlight the firm link between climate change and extreme weather; MSNBC’s Chris Hayes invited Holthaus on to discuss the piece in a segment that recalled the courageous climate focus of Hayes’s 2011-13 weekend show Up.

Yet this coverage was far from sufficient. It is both a journalistic and moral outrage that there is currently not one program on either CNN or MSNBC specifically focused on the climate crisis (The Weather Channel used to have such a program, but shamefully cancelled it in 2008). It is both a journalistic and moral outrage that major newspapers still publish climate-change denial. It has to stop now.

There is no rational basis for American print, broadcast and cable networks not to connect human-caused climate change to extreme weather events. The climate havoc we are experiencing was predicted decades ago by those who recognized the threat posed by the wanton burning of fossil fuels. Reporting on all extreme weather events should emphasize that such chaos could have been averted–and that we still have a very small chance of avoiding the very worst, by moving as quickly as possible to clean energy.

This is not “advocacy journalism.” This is not “liberal bias.” This is fact-based reporting–and any media outlet that fails to provide the public such fact-based reporting is betraying the public.

In addition to fact-based reporting, major newspapers need to knock it off with the publication of climate denial in the name of false balance. How else can we ensure that climate science gets its just due on our major op-ed pages? One sound suggestion comes from Howard Friel:

[T]he New York Times should hire a climate scientist, in particular, Michael Mann, to write a full-time column on climate change. Mann, a superb scientist, is also a recipient of the 2017 Stephen H. Schneider Award for Outstanding Climate Science Communication, which is given “to a natural or social scientist who has made extraordinary scientific contributions and communicated that knowledge to a broad public in a clear and compelling fashion.”

A good precedent for hiring Mann as a full-time climate-change columnist is the successful decision by the Times to employ Paul Krugman as an op-ed page columnist on economics. There is also an urgent need for mainstream news organizations to upgrade their reporting on climate science and its implications without the now-tattered and torn baggage of journalistic balance…

Engaging the likes of a Michael Mann as a regular columnist to report, translate, and comment on the extreme dangers of human-induced climate change would help the Times make amends to its readers and everyone else for its short coverage of global warming over the years, given the extent of the threat that it obviously now presents.

Maybe the Times should have hired Mann last year instead of, say, Bret Stephens. The past cannot be changed, but the future will change–dangerously–if American media entities don’t step up their coverage of this crisis, and raise public awareness about the steps that need to be taken to reduce carbon pollution. Climate change is the story of our lives–and if it’s not covered properly and comprehensively, it could lead to the end of our lives.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.