Opinion: Reports on extreme weather fail to acknowledge climate crisis

News media fixated by one-off events, often failing to link problems to long-term trends

Why don't media reports of extreme or unusual weather mention the role of climate change? This question has been asked, in increasingly scathing terms, of RTÉ this week, as Ireland witnessed a series of record-breaking hot days.

Certainly RTÉ – and the media more widely – have had plenty of opportunity to refer to the role climate change plays in intensifying weather extremes. Quite apart from our own mini heat wave, there have been plenty of examples of the impacts of extreme weather in recent days: the deadly "heat dome" in the US Pacific northwest and floods in Belgium, Germany and China.

The warming atmosphere – the result of human-produced greenhouse gases – results in more energy in the weather system. As a consequence, weather events – whether they are droughts, downpours, or heat wave – are more intense than they would be without all that human-produced carbon dioxide in the air, and more frequent.

Floods that might occur once in 100 years are now happening once in 10. Once-in-a-generation events are almost commonplace. Annual weather-related phenomena – such as the wildfire seasons in Australia and in the US – now start earlier, and last longer.


Why is it that the media shy away from making the link between climate change and extreme weather?

Yet for the most part, the media report these events without acknowledging, or even referring to, the role played by climate change. In Ireland, this omission has prompted a social media campaign to call on the national broadcaster to change its ways. The influential NGO Irish Doctors for the Environment even published an open letter to RTÉ citing their disappointment and deep concern at the standard of reporting.

So why is it that the media shy away from making the link between climate change and extreme weather? The environmental medics suspect it’s linked to RTÉ’s sponsorship deals with farming and aviation concerns: that the failure to refer to the contribution of climate change is some sort of conspiracy of silence.

But the cock-up theory is far more likely than the conspiracy one. Journalists fail to attribute weather events or natural disasters to climate change due to reasons bound up with the norms of their profession, their newsroom cultures, and how they have reported these events before. They don’t do this deliberately, but reflexively.

First, there is a long tradition in this part of the world of celebrating warm weather. "Phew What A Scorcher!" is a tabloid headline cliche – but it's a cliche because it's been used so often. The headline is often accompanied by photographs of people jumping off the Salthill diving platform, or from the rocks at the Forty Foot, or eating ice-cream. This way of reporting high temperatures is baked into the DNA of Irish and UK newsrooms and journalists.

Second, attribution science – the running of computer models to show what would have happened without climate change – takes time. For instance, climate scientists decided to carry out an attribution study on the Oregon heat wave in early July – a day-and-night effort involving scientists from around the world in what Time Magazine called a "scientific sprint" – it took nine days.

The study found the heat dome phenomenon that produced temperatures of 46.6 degrees in Portland would have been “virtually impossible” without climate change.

So journalists who want to include a reference to the role climate change played in a certain event do not have precise data to hand. Add in the fact that many newsrooms are running on severely-reduced budgets, that many reporters are relatively inexperienced, with low levels of environmental literacy, and you can see where a “better leave it out” mentality comes from.

This is not to excuse the lack of joined-up reporting

The news media is attracted to one-off events, and journalists are poor at linking other problems to long-term trends. Coverage of unemployment, poverty, crime, sexism, racism, and other persistent social problems is usually focused on single, dramatic events, and fails to make the link to wider social causes.

This is not to excuse the lack of joined-up reporting. Journalists should at the very least make reference to the general influence of climate change on the intensity and frequency of extreme weather; but rather to explain it in the context of how journalists operate.

The climate is changing, and the way journalists cover it will change too. A record-breaking hot spell may not be celebrated so enthusiastically in the future, but rather seen as the harbinger of hotter summers to come.

Climate will become the taken-for-granted context of all news reporting, the ways jobs and the economy are now. Environmental reporters will become more like expert consultants for stories on other news beats as climate action moves centre stage.

As a headline on a report for the Harvard journalism research institute, the Nieman Foundation, put it: "If you're not a climate reporter yet, you will be."

  • Dr David Robbins is a former journalist and director of the DCU Centre for Climate & Society