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Media Cool to Linking Wildfires, Climate Change

• June 29, 2009 • 10:00 PM

In the wake of some devastating blazes, Sam Kornell asks why few major media properties have explored the connection between the changing complexion of wildfires and climate change.

Early last summer, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that California’s fire season now lasts all 365 days of the year. At the time, nearly 2,000 separate wildfires were burning across the Golden State; the governor made his declaration during a press conference in Santa Barbara, Calif., where a major conflagration was scorching the hills just north of the city.

Since then, Santa Barbara, where Miller-McCune is headquartered, has endured two more major fires — one in November and one in May, both well out of what in past years was considered the natural fire season. These fires have attracted national media coverage, possibly in part because they threatened — and often burned — large homes owned by wealthy, occasionally famous people. The Jesusita fire, which began on May 5, was especially fearsome, reducing 80 homes to rubble and resulting in more than 30,000 evacuations, and it was covered by all of the major national media outlets.

With one notable exception, from the San Francisco Chronicle, none of the coverage explored the possibility that the fire might be linked to climate change, despite ample evidence that such a link exists. A few major outlets, such as Time, did posit such a connection after Australia’s Black Saturday fires in February, although that country has a former Australian of the Year focusing attention to the connection.

Perhaps editors didn’t see the upside of filtering a visually rich story packed full of human drama through the sieve of a politically divisive issue that appears — although it can be hard to tell — yet to gain really serious traction among many Americans. This seems particularly plausible in light of a recent Gallup study finding that 41 percent of respondents believe that the press overstates the evidence of global warming.

But whatever the cause, the apparent reticence of some media organizations to address the link between climate change and wildfire is unfortunate, since wildfires provide an intensely arresting visual example of an often abstract-seeming phenomenon. Studies show that people are more alert to the dangers climate change poses when they believe they can see or experience tangible evidence of it in their daily lives. But the most dramatic impacts of climate change, such as disappearing glaciers, are still mainly occurring at a distance. Making it clear that as climate change intensifies, major wildfires are going to increase in the Western U.S. — as a recent report by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program concluded — could help drive home the danger of a phenomenon still most closely associated with the collapse of distant ice-shelves.

“People can relate to what’s happening in their immediate environment — their town, their community, their part of the state,” says Eric Pooley, a veteran Washington journalist currently writing a book about the politics and economics of climate change. “To the extent that people still think of climate change as something abstract and going to happen in the future, it’s very powerful if reporters can point to things that are already happening” as a consequence of global warming.

The former editor of Fortune magazine and a longtime reporter and editor at Time, Pooley wrote a widely discussed study this winter for the Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard examining shortcomings in media coverage of the economics of climate change. In the extensive research he conducted for the report, he concluded that climate change in general is “still woefully underreported” by the press. In a phone conversation, he argued that reporters and editors are still “wary” about linking climate change to natural disasters, even when such links are scientifically uncontroversial; he believes this needs to change.

Of course, it is true that no single fire can be directly attributed to climate change in much the same way that climate change couldn’t be cited as the cause of Hurricane Katrina. The relevant question is not whether a particular natural disaster can be linked directly to the greenhouse effect, but whether it exemplifies future trends. Was Katrina the result of warming ocean water generating more intense hurricanes? There’s no definitive answer.

But there is much more certainty if the question is reframed slightly to ask whether, in the future, climate change will generate more frequent and intense hurricanes. The same is true of wildfires. “No individual event can be linked beyond a shadow of a doubt to global warming, but we do know that a warming world makes those events more likely — it loads the dice in favor of more wildfires, in favor of more hurricanes, in favor of more dramatic flooding and more drought,” Pooley said.

California is now in its third year of serious drought, and according to the Forest Service, this summer is going to be marked by extreme fire danger in many highly populated parts of the state. In the likely event that another fire threatens a large city sometime soon, will journalists and editors accord climate change a more prominent role in their coverage?

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Sam Kornell

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