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A Storm of Silence: Study Finds Media Is Largely Ignoring Link Between Hurricanes and Climate Change

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“A Storm of Silence.” That’s the title of a new report by the watchdog group Public Citizen that looks at the media’s failure to discuss climate change in its wall-to-wall hurricane coverage. While all the television networks commented on the magnitude of Hurricane Harvey and “extreme weather,” virtually none explained how warmer ocean temperatures lead to heavier winds, warmer air causes more precipitation, and higher sea levels exacerbate storm surges. The report examined 18 media sources’ coverage of Hurricane Harvey—looking at 10 major newspapers, three weekly news magazines and national programming from ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox News over the course of eight days’ worth of Hurricane Harvey coverage. The report concludes, “Many failed to discuss the issue [of climate change] much or failed to cover important aspects of it. … Two of the three major broadcast networks, ABC and NBC, did not mention climate change at all in the context of Hurricane Harvey.” We speak to David Arkush, managing director of Public Citizen’s Climate Program.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to move on right now. Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Jose. Well, there’s another storm brewing: “A Storm of Silence.” That’s the title of a new report by the watchdog group Public Citizen, which looks at the media’s failure to discuss climate change in its wall-to-wall hurricane coverage. While all the television networks commented on the magnitude of Hurricane Harvey and “extreme weather,” virtually none explained how warmer ocean temperatures lead to heavier winds and many other issues.

David Arkush is now with us. David Arkush is the managing director of Public Citizen’s Climate Program.

Talk about what you found, David.

DAVID ARKUSH: Sure. So, we looked at climate coverage of—sorry, we looked at coverage of Harvey from eight days, starting when it first hit Texas—that was on a Friday—and running through the following Friday. And we found a few—we found a few things. The most interesting, I think, are, first, ABC and NBC News didn’t mention climate change at all in the context of Hurricane Harvey. This is for an entire—we looked at eight days. I updated the research. We looked—NBC still hasn’t mentioned climate change in the context of any of its recent hurricane coverage—sorry, ABC still hasn’t mentioned it. NBC finally got around to it on Saturday, after more than two weeks had passed since Harvey hit and after we called them out on it with this report.

Another major finding was that—and we looked at 18 media sources—10 newspapers, three news weeklies, five broadcast networks. And across all 18 sources, 72 percent of the mentions of climate change, in the context of Hurricane Harvey, came from just four of the sources. Those were CNN, The New York times, The Washington Post and the Houston Chronicle. So, the vast, vast majority of the coverage was from a very small number of sources. If you live within a certain media bubble and those are the sources that you watch or you read, you might have thought that the climate connection with Harvey was done pretty well in some of the media. It turns out, outside that bubble, it was pretty awful.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s play a sampling of some of the news reports as Harvey made landfall in Texas.

KRISTINE JOHNSON: Harvey is threatening millions of Texans with catastrophic flooding.

JUJU CHANG: The monumental flooding and humanitarian disaster continues.

LESTER HOLT: Tonight, Houstonians are still under siege in a city still underwater.

AMY GOODMAN: David Arkush, what’s going on here? I mean, we’re not just talking about Fox. There are occasional mentions of climate change—extremely occasional—on MSNBC, on CNN. But given the wall-to-wall coverage, there is almost no mention of climate change.

DAVID ARKUSH: That’s right, and it actually reflects a broader problem. And this is why we’re sort of policing this and watching what the media is doing, and we’re going to be pushing them to do better. There’s a general problem in this country of people not talking about climate change enough. It’s sort of the biggest looming threat, and it’s shocking—it’s really really shocking how few people are talking about it.

There’s research that suggests that only 43 percent of Americans report hearing about climate change in the media at least once a month. Fifty-seven percent will say that they hear about climate change in the media less than once a month or not at all. Only 19 percent of people report hearing people they know talk about climate change at least once a month. Twenty-eight percent of Americans report never hearing anyone they know talk about climate change.

And this is something that—this is a terrible threat facing this country, really an existential threat, that is much nearer and much more urgent than most people think. Most people think it’s an issue that’s going to affect people in faraway places, it’s going to affect people 100 years from now or 200 years from now. That’s all mistaken. It is going to hurt—it is already hurting people in the United States. It is going to hurt worse and worse. And it is going to pose potentially catastrophic, existential threats to the United States as late—as early as the second half of this century. It is very soon. We have very little time left to fight it.

And meanwhile, we can. We have great solutions. People just don’t know about these things. And I think a lot of that starts with getting the media to report on it more.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, David, what about those who say that no single extreme weather event, such as Hurricane Harvey, can be directly attributed to climate change?

DAVID ARKUSH: Well, that’s absolutely right. It is a mistake to say that—to even pose the question: Did climate change cause Hurricane Harvey? Or did climate change cause this or that particular event? That’s not how it works. Weather systems, climate systems are complex. What happens is, climate change worsens and intensifies and contributes to these problems.

So, climate change contributes to a hurricane like Harvey in several ways. The three biggest and most obvious are climate change has raised the sea levels, and higher sea levels mean worse storm surges and worse flooding, in general; warmer oceans—climate change has warmed the oceans, and warmer oceans mean stronger winds in the hurricanes, and the winds can be very damaging; and finally, climate change has warmed the air temperature, and warmer air holds more moisture, makes it more humid, and that leads to more precipitation. So, those are three major ways that climate change contributes to an event like Harvey and intensifies it and worsens it. The prediction is we get more intense hurricanes. It’s not even clear we necessarily get more hurricanes overall. It’s that when we have them, they will be worse.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in a major piece about The Weather Channel, The New York Times reports, quote, “For weeks now, the network has broadcast live nonstop, first as Hurricane Harvey inundated Texas, and now as Irma menaces Florida. … Yet in all the nonstop coverage there was no mention of climate change and its role in creating extreme weather—not at the morning meeting, and not at other planning sessions throughout the day. … It’s not that the Weather Channel ignores climate change altogether. … But the words 'climate change' don’t appear in any promotional materials or show titles, and the phrase is only occasionally uttered on the air,” unquote. The article goes on to quote The Weather Channel’s David Shull, who’s a Republican, saying, quote, “I believe in climate change, and I believe it’s man-made. … But I’m not a big fan of the term. It’s been politicized.” Has the term been politicized?

DAVID ARKUSH: Well, the term certainly has been politicized. At the same time, I don’t think that means we shouldn’t talk about it. I believe the same article actually suggests that it’s actually a policy position. It’s a policy at The Weather Channel not to mention climate change, because they’re afraid of alienating conservatives who watch The Weather Channel. I think that’s a step too far. I understand trying to speak to people in a language that they’ll be receptive to, but you can’t ignore an important issue that’s real and is so directly related to so many weather events and weather catastrophes. I think at some point there’s just an obligation to talk about the truth.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, The Weather Channel itself getting hit hard, being in Atlanta, and David Shull, being the chief executive, completely acknowledging, as so many of the meteorologists do privately, that climate change is an issue, but saying they’re catering to their audience.

DAVID ARKUSH: That’s absolutely right. And I just think—well, first of all, at least as of now, it’s not as if there is a right-wing alternative to The Weather Channel where their viewers are going to go. It’s not as if—you know, if people don’t like CNN’s coverage and think it’s too liberal for reporting facts, they can go watch Fox News and be lied to, if they want. You know, that’s not really the case with The Weather Channel. And I think The Weather Channel ought to do its job and report the truth. You know, we already have enough problems with, for example, an EPA administrator who doesn’t want to talk about the truth and talk about science. We don’t need our news reporting agencies, down to our weather reporters, essentially making political decisions not to talk about reality.

AMY GOODMAN: How much do you think the fact that the fossil fuel industry sponsors the networks, along with the weapons manufacturers and others—these are corporate networks. You know, you’ll see Jake Tapper’s—the lede, “brought to you by the American Petroleum Institute.” How much do you think that determines how little is said about climate change?

DAVID ARKUSH: You know, I’m sure it plays some role. At this point, I’d almost want to say it probably plays a role on the margins, because there’s so little coverage that there aren’t very many—I wouldn’t say there are very many opportunities for those sponsors to get upset about it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about a remark that, on the Friday, the former EPA administrator, Christine Todd Whitman, wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times titled “How Not to Run the E.P.A.” In it, she writes that the current EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, “recently unveiled a plan that amounts to a slow-rolling catastrophe in the making: the creation of an antagonistic 'red team' of dissenting scientists to challenge the conclusions reached by thousands of scientists over decades of research on climate change. It will serve only to confuse the public and sets a deeply troubling precedent for policy-making at the E.P.A.” This is Christie Todd Whitman, a Republican former administrator of the same agency. Your reaction?

DAVID ARKUSH: Well, I think she’s absolutely right. I think this notion of doing a red team, blue team exercise on climate science is really absurd. Scott Pruitt was talking about this kind of thing around the time he got confirmed. He has sort of a new form of climate denial, where he says, you know, “I’m not denying that it’s happening. I’m just saying we don’t understand it well enough, and we need to learn more about it and debate it more, before we act on it.” And he was saying that we should be having a big conversation about this, a big public conversation, and we should be talking about it in the high schools, and we should be talking about it in the Congress.

And, I mean, with all respect, no. It’s actually scientists who should be debating that, and they have, and they’ve reached a conclusion, and it’s clear what the science is. And if you’re not going to accept what the scientists have to say about it, then the debate never has to end. Right? The debate will go on and on and on, if you’re going to actually reject conclusive, authoritative evidence on one side. And that is what Scott Pruitt is doing. This isn’t a debate; it’s a filibuster. Right? This is a multi-decade filibuster, brought to you by the fossil fuel industry, of which he is basically a part. And he is just continuing that.

AMY GOODMAN: Our videographer Hany Massoud was flying back from Houston, our coverage of Hurricane Harvey, watching Fox on the plane, and there was the image of the Hurricane Irma bearing down on the Caribbean and Texas—I mean, and Florida, and, at the same time, the image of President Trump speaking in Mandan, North Dakota, where so many Native Americans have been arrested for protesting the Dakota Access pipeline, and he was celebrating the fact that he had pulled out of the Paris climate accord and greenlighted both the Dakota Access pipeline and the Keystone XL. Last comments, David Arkush, in this 30 seconds?

DAVID ARKUSH: Well, on Trump, I will say, you know, he is obviously on course to be probably the worst president in American history. And there are innumerable scandals surrounding him. He may even be impeached. We’ll see what happens. I think if—you know, if there is a history 200, 300, 500 years from now, he will possibly be remembered most for his terrible decisions on climate history. At really a turning point in U.S. history, he is turning the wrong way and heading us down a path toward disaster, when this is a problem that we could actually come together and fix.

AMY GOODMAN: David Arkush, we want to thank you for being with us, managing director of Public Citizen’s Climate Program, author of the new report, “A Storm of Silence: Media Coverage of Climate Change and Hurricane Harvey.” We’ll link to it at democracynow.org.

When we come back, mutual aid, decentralized help in communities. Stay with us.

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