The media's remarkable silence on the cause of California's tragic storms
There's simply no excuse
My good wishes to you on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
I live in California, near the coast. Since the week after Christmas, we have been pummeled by eight “atmospheric rivers,” a weather phenomenon that summons moisture into a powerful band and then unleashes intense blasts of precipitation.
The stream next to my house has become a river and some of the roads I rely on are impassible. I’m one of the lucky ones. At least 19 people have died as storms continue to cause widespread flooding, mudslides and power outages. Another storm is hitting today. Millions of Californians are under a flood watch.
Among the most vulnerable are low-income people who live in fragile structures or are homeless, disproportionately people of color. We don’t talk nearly enough about the consequences of climate change for the most vulnerable among us. If Martin Luther King, Jr. were alive today, I’m sure he would be.
Why is the media so tentative about attributing the devastation here in California to climate change at all? Or the climate havoc all over America, and the world?
Saturday’s New York Times front-page story about what’s happening now in California didn’t even mention the words “climate change” until the 26th paragraph, the third from the last. Even then it didn’t blame man-made climate change but referred obliquely to climate scientists who “say” climate change “amplifies normal extremes” of drought and flooding.
A review of coverage by national TV news in the weeks after the storms began found that (with one exception) cable news and national broadcast networks failed to link California’s devastating storms to the global climate crisis.
It’s as if we’re living in two worlds carrying separate stories — in one, stories about the devastation occurring all around us; in another, stories about the findings and solemn warnings of climate scientists. Why aren’t they the same story, including the perils suffered by the most vulnerable?
To be sure, it's difficult to directly attribute specific storms to climate change. Meteorology isn’t precise when it comes to causes and effects. But is there any doubt that the Earth is warming due to human causes, resulting in more extreme weather exactly of the sort we’ve been experiencing on the West Coast?
Climate change did not directly produce the raging water that pulled a five-year-old boy from his mother’s arms as he was on his way to school in San Luis Obispo County last Monday, of course, but climate change was obviously behind this tragedy — as it’s been behind so many other tragedies that have been faithfully reported but whose underlying cause is being ignored or reported in the 26th or so paragraph.
I understood years ago why editors, publishers, and TV producers were reluctant to wade into the political fight over climate change. It was too charged, too partisan, too many facts were in dispute, and Republicans were adamant in their refusal to concede that human-created climate change posed a clear and present danger. The media were content to report on climate catastrophes and leave the debate up to the politicians.
But now? There’s no longer any legitimate dispute. News outlets have no excuse for temerity in connecting tragic weather events to the undeniable, violent changes in the Earth’s weather. It’s like journalists who report on the high rate of homicides in America without mentioning how easy it is to get guns in this country, or the reporters during the early stages of Trump’s presidency who didn’t want to come right out and say he lied. A failure to make such clear connections is itself misleading.
Each climate calamity we endure is another learning opportunity for the nation to understand the existential threat of climate change and why we must take the lead in reversing it. For the media to avoid talking about it is a loss for democracy.