Climate Change Is Impacting Every Aspect of Modern Life, but the Press Fails to “Connect the Dots”
Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales / Democracy Now!
(July 24, 2019) — July is slated to become the hottest month in recorded history, as extreme weather fueled by global warming wreaks havoc across the globe, from extreme heat waves in Europe and the U.S. to deadly monsoon flooding in South Asia. Severe rains have killed at least 660 people across India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan in a monsoon that is expected to continue throughout the week.
A record heat wave is hitting Europe for the second time this summer, with Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam all at risk of hitting all-time high temperatures, and Spain facing the threat of severe fires.
We speak with climate scientist Michael Mann, a distinguished professor and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, about the latest weather extremes across the globe and how the media can responsibly cover climate change.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the climate crisis. July is slated to become the hottest month in recorded history, as extreme weather fueled by global warming wreaks havoc across the globe, from extreme heat waves in Europe and the United States to deadly monsoon flooding in South Asia. Severe rains have killed at least 660 people across India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan in a monsoon that is expected to continue throughout the week.
The flooding has displaced millions of people, including Rohingya Muslim refugees in Cox’s Bazar, the largest refugee camp in the world. This comes as a record heat wave is hitting Europe for the second time this summer, with Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam all at risk of hitting all-time high temperatures, and Spain facing the threat of severe fires. This is Clare Nullis with the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization.
CLARE NULLIS: Heat waves are—do bear the hallmark of climate change. And they are—as we saw in June, they’re becoming more frequent. They’re starting earlier, and they’re becoming more intense . . . . The Spanish meteorological service is again, today, warning of an extreme fire risk in large parts of the country. It’s a combination of heat, of wind, and the risk of storms and lightning setting things ablaze.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The United Nations warned that such extreme weather events in Europe will become more frequent and more intense as climate change worsens. This all comes as a climate change-fueled heat wave in the U.S. has finally subsided, after a weekend of scorching temperatures across the East Coast and Midwest that put 157 million people under heat warning.
AMY GOODMAN: Last month was the hottest June ever recorded. In the U.S., the number of days with a heat index of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit will more than double by 2050 due to the climate crisis, this according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The extreme weather comes as climate activists are sounding the alarm on the need to act against devastating global warming. Demonstrators with Extinction Rebellion staged a civil disobedience protest in Washington, D.C., calling on lawmakers to take action on the climate crisis and to pass the climate emergency resolution introduced earlier this month by Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Activists superglued themselves to doorways in the underground passageways connecting congressional offices with the Capitol building.
EXTINCTION REBELLION ACTIVIST 1: How did we mobilize our entire
nation to fight the Nazis, and yet we can’t even mobilize one single resolution
to save our entire species?
EXTINCTION REBELLION ACTIVIST 2: We have known about this trend for decades, and we still have done absolutely nothing.
EXTINCTION REBELLION ACTIVIST 3: Especially who has known about it is the fossil fuel companies. They’ve known. It’s in their records. But they wouldn’t say anything, because they wanted to keep making profits.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Penn State, where we’re joined by professor Michael Mann. He’s the director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. His latest book, co-authored with political cartoonist Tom Toles, is titled The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy.
On Sunday, Michael Mann tweeted at The New York Times urging the paper to change the headline to its story, “What a Heat Wave Looks Like.” Mann said it should have read “What Climate Change Looks Like.”
Michael Mann, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Let’s start there. This is how people learn about the climate crisis—the connections of the disparate weather events, from the meteorologists on television, every 10 minutes or so, to headlines like that, “heat wave” versus “climate crisis.” Can you talk about what the media needs to do to make these connections?
MICHAEL MANN: Yeah. Thanks, Amy. It’s good to be with you this morning.
Just in your program earlier, we saw a great example of a story where there is an important climate change context. Of course, the political turmoil in Puerto Rico right now, ultimately, is connected to the inadequate response of their government to a devastating storm, Hurricane Maria, that undoubtedly was supercharged by climate change.
The impacts of climate change are no longer subtle. Once again this summer, we are seeing them play out in real time, on our television screens, in our newspaper headlines. And so we do need to connect the dots. Climate is no longer just a niche issue, you know, that deserves only to be covered in science programs or science and technology sections. It is impacting every aspect of modern life, and we need to integrate that context into our reporting.
You mentioned The New York Times article. And I somewhat humorously tweeted, you know, that I fixed their headline for them, because they published an article about this devastating heat wave without any mention, let alone any allusion in the title, of the critical role that climate change is now playing with these devastating extreme weather events. We simply would not be seeing these devastating, unprecedented weather extremes in the absence of the warming of the planet due to the burning of fossil fuels.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Michael Mann, could you talk some more about the monsoon flooding and the displacement of people in South Asia? Especially Bangladesh, one of the most populous countries in the world, has been repeatedly subjected to flooding, massive flooding, in recent years.
MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, absolutely. And so, these events are not disconnected—heat wave, drought and wildfire in Europe, unprecedented rainfall in parts of South Asia. What we’re seeing, in addition to the obvious factors—and I’ll just take a moment to talk about the obvious factors. A warmer planet, you’re going to see more intense and frequent heat waves. That’s obvious. You’re going to see more intense rainfall events, because a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, so when you get rainfall, you get more of it in relatively short periods of time, worse flooding events.
Warming the ground causes more evaporation of moisture from the ground surface, so you get worse droughts. And you combine heat and drought, you get wildfires. So, that’s all fairly clear, and the climate models, for decades, have been predicting that we would see these things happen. And we’re seeing them happen.
But there are other things that are adding fuel to this fire, so to speak, that are intensifying these extreme weather events beyond what the models predicted. And it has to do with an interesting relationship between what happens up in the Arctic—what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. As you melt all that sea ice—and we’re seeing unprecedented melting of sea ice in the Arctic—and you warm the Arctic more than the rest of the planet, well, that temperature contrast between the cold Arctic and the warm subtropics is what drives the jet stream.
So when you warm the Arctic more than the rest of the planet, you decrease that contrast. You slow down the jet stream. You get those very broad meanders in those stuck weather systems like we’re seeing. So, you get, you know, a high-pressure system sitting over Europe for day after day, or the eastern and central U.S. for day after day.
That’s when you get these unprecedented heat events. And conversely, you get a low-pressure system, what we call a trough, that’s stuck over the same location day after day, you get unprecedented monsoonal rainfall.
Now, this factor, this additional factor, is not well captured in the climate models. So, our predictions, if anything, have underestimated the impact that climate change is having on these devastating weather extremes.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you have the—talking about devastations, well over 600 people dead in South Asia from this climate crisis. And I want to go back to this issue of the media, since the U.S. is one of the main drivers, with the release of greenhouse gases, of the climate crisis, to what people understand here.
A recent report by Media Matters looking at just the networks’ nightly news programs and Sunday morning political shows found climate change coverage actually dropped 45% from 2017 to 2018. The programs on ABC, NBC, CBS, as well as Fox News Sunday aired a total of 142 minutes of climate coverage—a little more than two hours—in 2018—less than two-and-a-half hours.
Media Matters reported, nearly a third of the time, 46 minutes, came from one single episode on NBC’s Meet the Press. The same study found ABC featured just one climate scientist on its show in 2018. That’s ABC. NBC led with 16 climate scientists on its nightly newscasts and Sunday morning news shows.
But as we were talking about before, actually, what would make the hugest difference, what most people tune into television for, are the meteorologists, who are talking about extreme weather but not talking about the climate crisis. When we covered the U.N. climate summit, we met a group of European meteorologists, called something like Meteorologists for Social Change, who were leading a movement to get the people who most communicate with their populations to make this connection.
What kind of conversations have you had? And I’m not even talking Fox, the climate-denying network. I’m talking about the networks that are critical of Trump yet continue to refuse to make those connections in their daily reports, Michael Mann, like this weekend as they talked about heat waves.
MICHAEL MANN: Yeah. So, you know, some media organizations are doing reasonably well. The New York Times, in general, actually, has given quite a bit of coverage to climate change and the devastating impacts that it’s having. PBS NewsHour has done a good job in covering this issue and connecting the dots on these extreme weather events and climate change. And, of course, you, Amy. Democracy Now! is a shining example of what a media organization needs to be doing, showcasing this issue and connecting it with all these other challenges and crises that we face.
Now, there is an effort when it comes to broadcast meteorologists. You know, your local weather presenter, your local meteorologist, is often the one scientist that people feel like they know and they have a personal relationship with. So there’s a huge opportunity to, again, integrate the context of climate change into nightly weather reports. After all, the extreme weather events that we’re watching play out in real time here in the United States, there’s a direct climate connection.
Some broadcast meteorologists are starting to do that. My friend John Morales in NBC Miami is doing a wonderful job in making those connections for his audiences. And, of course, in Florida, they are seeing the impacts of climate change firsthand. And now we’re seeing them pretty much everywhere. And other broadcast meteorologists should follow John’s example.
There is a program right now, an organization that helps to sort of foster the integration of climate information into news coverage. Climate Central in Princeton, New Jersey, has been working with broadcast meteorologists to provide them with the tools and the training so that they can integrate climate change into their nightly discussions of weather, especially when the weather events that they’re talking about, the extreme weather events, cannot be understood without talking about climate change.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you very much for being with us. Of course, we’ll continue to do this. In Florida, newsrooms around Florida are banding together to—you know, usually competitors, Miami Herald and other newspapers—to cover the climate crisis, and we’re seeing more and more of this. But, obviously, it’s up to the consumers of the news to demand that their news organizations make the connection, tell the truth.
Michael Mann, thanks so much for being with us, distinguished professor and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. His latest book, co-authored with political cartoonist Tom Toles, The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy.
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