It’s Time for Weather Reporting to Include the Facts About Climate Change
May 8, 2023
It was yet another conspicuously mild winter in the Ocean State.
If you were keeping score at home, you know that the season had one of the lowest snowfall totals in more than a century, that January averaged 7 degrees above normal, and that temperatures topped 70 degrees in February.
Local news outlets covered these unsettling weather trends — to an extent. In January WPRI published a piece headlined, “Where is winter? Why has it been so mild? Where is the snow?” The next month, WJAR had, “Record-breaking warmth across Southern New England.” In March, The Providence Journal followed with, “Providence just had its fourth-warmest winter on record, and there wasn’t much snow.”
But what you wouldn’t find in any of these three reports was a discussion, or even a mention, of climate change. Nor would you see it from another outlet, ABC6, when temperatures topped 85 degrees and broke records last month.
It’s 2023. It’s been almost a decade since the People’s Climate March in New York City. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has published six assessment reports. The notion that human activity is a direct cause of the changing climate has been affirmed by organizations across the country and around the world.
And yet, in Rhode Island, on our airwaves and in our newspapers, we’re being fed reports about ever-weirder weather that ignore the most obvious and urgent cause. In many instances, meteorologists report record temperatures with exclamation marks and enthusiasm, as if we’re all winners in some climatological game show. It’s enough to make you feel as though you’re losing your mind.
I have my guesses about what’s going on behind the scenes. Climate change is a massive bummer, and news organizations would prefer not to upset audiences on a traditionally carefree topic like the weather. Climate change has also, like public health, been turned by bad-faith actors into a “political” issue, and I suspect these outlets are also hesitant to appear “political” in weather coverage via frank discussions of climate change. It’s also conceivable that major advertisers (oil companies, say) or even right-leaning corporate leadership (like Sinclair, which owns WJAR) have spoken out against linking warmer temperatures to human activity.
But I’m less concerned about the reasons for the glaring silence than I am in raising my voice to say — as a Rhode Islander, as a journalist, as a resident of a planet hurtling toward an ever-less-hospitable future — it’s time to stop. We are far, far too late into this crisis to be ignoring climate change in weather reporting. To do so insults the intelligence of their audience. It omits context to such an extreme extent that it borders on misinformation. And it reflects a flawed notion that silence on this issue is actually “fair” or “objective,” when, in fact, silence unquestionably benefits political and economic actors who would rather audiences remain under-informed or complacent.
To be fair, it isn’t as if these news organizations have ignored the issue entirely. At the Journal Alex Kuffner has done an excellent job covering climate change on the environmental beat. And the TV-news channels, including WJAR and WPRI, have produced solid reports. And yet, for some reason, the subject goes unmentioned in the most obvious places: everyday weather coverage, including articles about century-old temperature records being broken and conspicuously low seasonal snowfall.
The good news — at least as far as this narrow issue of superficial weather coverage goes — is that it really doesn’t take much to turn a head-in-the-sand report on weird weather into something more responsible. On Twitter, I’ve suggested what this could look like: “According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), ‘There is unequivocal evidence that Earth is warming at an unprecedented rate. Human activity is the principal cause.'” That’s it. Just 27 words will do the job. It would be equally easy to link to the State of Rhode Island’s website dedicated to climate change, or Rhode Island-specific climate reports from NOAA or the EPA.
And because we are so far into this problem, there is no shortage of resources advising journalists on best practices for reporting on climate change, like this page from the Harvard-based Nieman Foundation, or the 2019 report, “The Media Are Complacent While the World Burns,” from the Columbia Journalism Review.
Whatever form this acknowledgement takes, in 2023, there is no journalistically defensible reason to report on extreme weather trends without mentioning climate change. Not anywhere, and certainly not in our tiny, coastal speck of real estate we call “home.”
It’s time to reassess the age-old tradition that meteorologists can’t or shouldn’t break their ever-chipper character to share some unsettling news. It’s time to remove the firewall between coverage of climate change and everyday weather reporting. It’s time to prioritize acknowledging glaring, unavoidable truth over the preferences of advertisers, executives, or even some audience members.
Ignoring uncomfortable topics is a bad look for news organizations.
And it looks worse with every passing mild winter.
Philip Eil is a freelance journalist based in Providence. Follow him on Twitter at @phileil.