As wave after wave of record-breaking high temperatures grips huge swaths of America, media coverage of the December warmth has rarely been willing to discuss its cause.
Reporters may be willing to point to a monster El Niño, but hardly have mentioned it’s launching its assault off a higher baseline temperatures from human-caused climate change, resulting in some jaw-dropping record highs.
Of 259 newspaper stories that touched on December’s warmth between December 1 and 14, 25 made the link to El Niño, but only seven made the tie to climate change. Network news coverage has been no more willing to connect the dots. Of 67 mentions of December warmth, six linked it to El Niño, but only one talked about the climate connection.
Warmth burns hundreds of records
Much of the East Coast and Midwest have seen record-breaking December warmth.Through December 12, nearly 700 warm records have been set, compared to only about 120 cold records, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information.
A series of cities broke records over the weekend, from Mississippi to Wisconsin to New York. On Saturday, Cleveland shattered its high temperature record by seven degrees. Then on Sunday, Philadelphia broke its record by six degrees and Dubuque, Iowa—943 miles to the west—broke its record by five degrees.
On Monday, Buffalo hit an incredible 71 degrees, destroying the old record of 64. The extended warm spell has left Buffalo with no snow to date, breaking the previous record for latest snow of December 3 that dates back to the 1800s. Buffalo usually sees its first measurable snow by November 8, but there’s still no snow in the long-range forecast. The cycle has even become self-sustaining. “Without snow on the ground, the feeble December sun can warm things up much more efficiently,” Eric Holthaus says at Slate (12/14/15).
It’s too early to determine December’s place in the record books, but 2015 is on pace to be the warmest year on record. October “marked the sixth consecutive month a monthly global temperature record has been broken and was also the greatest departure from average for any month in the 1,630 months of recordkeeping,” according to NOAA.
What the science says
While this year’s El Niño is part of a natural cycle that’s regularly sent US temperatures soaring, it’s now coming off a launching pad that’s been raised by global warming. “Once you superimpose this natural [El Niño] cycle on greenhouse warming,” Kim Cobb of the Georgia Institute of Technology Cobb told Climate Central (1/3/13), “things just get worse.”
The combination of a natural cycle intersecting with a human-caused warming trend has led to some confusing coverage. For example, Holthaus’ Slate piece is headlined “Global Warming Isn’t Really to Blame for This Crazy Warm Weather,” but later he clarifies, “Climate change made this weekend’s warmth more likely, but it wasn’t the main driving force.”
As climate scientist Kevin Trenberth has said about the climate/weather link generally: “It is not a well-posed question to ask, ‘Is it caused by global warming?’ Or ‘Is it caused by natural variability?’ Because it is always both.”
Although all weather events take place in the context of a climate that’s been altered by pollution, research on the specific relationship between global warming and the El Nino cycle is still in its early stages. A 2014 study published in the journal Nature Climate Change (1/19/14) by a team of 17 researchers warned that global warming could double extreme El Niño events. “With a projected large increase in extreme El Niño occurrences, we should expect more occurrences of devastating weather events, which will have pronounced implications for 21st century climate,” said the authors. While other researchers say it’s too soon to draw conclusions, there’s some evidence to back this up: All three El Niños on record rated as “very strong” have come since 1982.
Media sees safety in El Nino
Much of the coverage of the December warmth has shied away from discussing a cause entirely, but when reporters have placed blame, they’ve been much more comfortable blaming El Niño than global warming. “The reason for all this mild weather, meteorologists say, is a strong El Niño,” wrote Donita Naylor in the Providence Journal (12/10/15).
Even within newscasts that covered the Paris climate action agreement, reporters wouldn’t reference global warming’s role in record-breaking warmth. “Many forecasters point to El Niño, a weather pattern that develops from a warm Pacific Ocean,” Jamie Yuccas reported on the CBS Evening News on December 12, failing to even mention climate change within his story despite an anchor lead-in that mentioned Paris.
Other journalists referenced climate change as an elephant in the room not to be discussed. “It’s all about El Niño—isn’t it always?—and perhaps climate change, though that element is beyond the scope of this story,” wrote Dan Sheehan in the Morning Call of Allentown, PA on December 2. “Some people think that this increased storminess can be attributed to ‘climate change,’ but the jury is still out on that,” editorialized the Asbury Park Press (12/8/15).
One of the few examples of open discussion of climate impacts came on the December 4 edition of CBS This Morning. “We have had 14 of the 15 hottest years in the past couple of years. 2015 was the hottest year on record,” Norah O’Donnell told co-hosts Gayle King and Charlie Rose. “We always celebrate warm temperatures in November and December, but really, that’s a problem,” replied King.
We can’t settle for climate silence
Why are journalists more willing to discuss El Niño than global warming? Since El Niño can’t be pinned on polluters, they feel they can discuss it and not be accused of taking sides on a hot-button issue. Of course, one could certainly question whether it’s “objective” to shy away from climate science simply because it’s controversial.
It’s important to question the coverage now, because this warm pattern isn’t going away—in fact, NOAA warns, it’s only just beginning:
While the warmer-than-average ocean waters are likely reaching their peak about now, they will remain a huge source of warmth for the next several months to drive the main impacts on temperature and rain/snow over North America, which typically follow the peak. The main impacts season is December–March, so we’re just at the very beginning of finding out what this El Niño event will bring to the US. There’s no doubt that El Niño 2015–2016, which has already shown its power around the world, will have a significant effect on the US winter.
As for Christmas, it may be merry and bright, but right now forecasters say it’s unlikely to be white:
According to AccuWeather chief long-range meteorologist Paul Pastelok, another big surge of warmth is in store for the week of Christmas in the eastern US, despite winter’s official arrival on Tuesday, December 22.
“A number of locations in the East could be looking at highs well into the 60s to near 70 on Christmas Day,” Pastelok said.
The best way to get reporters to mention climate change in their coverage of December warmth? Email and tweet them about it nicely. Write letters to the editor urging newspapers to quote more climate scientists. Most reporters are up to speed on climate science and would be happy to include more of it, but climate science deniers are much more vocal about their displeasure with reporting. They know how to work the referees: complain loudly and, consciously or not, more of the calls will go your way.
Miles Grant is a progressive blogger and environmental communicator in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. He’s senior communications manager for the National Wildlife Federation (though his thoughts here are his own). Read more at The Green Miles and follow him on Twitter.
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