NASA polar vortex image
NASA’s Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument captures a polar vortex moving from Central Canada into the U.S. Midwest from January 20 through January 29. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech AIRS Project)

Americans watched toward the end of January as winter storm Jayden plunged much of the country (including parts of the Midwest where I live) to record-breaking low temperatures.

The extreme cold upended daily life, closed schools and universities, and disrupted mail service in 10 states and air travel around the country. Meanwhile, Australia experienced its hottest January on record.

News Analysis

With headlines like the Chicago Tribune’s of a “dangerous deep freeze,” media outlets provided live updates, survival tips, and covered impacts on the homeless, among other angles. Some took President Donald Trump to task over a tweet calling for global warming to “please come back fast.” Media later reported on deaths attributed to the extreme cold, vulnerabilities in public transit systems, and the potentially staggering economic price tag.

These are climate change stories.

Misplaced focus on climate change as the ’cause’

Numerous articles addressed whether or not climate change was responsible. Headlines included:

  • “Is deep freeze the latest sign climate change is accelerating?” (CBC News);
  • “Believe it or not, global warming might have caused the arctic blast” (Minneapolis Star Tribune); and
  • “Extreme cold in the U.S. and extreme heat in Australia – all due to climate change” (The Irish Times).

Some media framing was problematic, like that in Fox News that “some scientists argue that the Arctic warming is already having an effect on the polar vortex and jet stream” while “other scientists remain unconvinced.”  That frame highlights disagreement over scientific consensus without explaining how the process of scientific inquiry works.

Media clearly contribute to public understanding of climate change. But in some cases they do so – or try to – in the context of journalistic norms of objectivity and balance that continue to hinder evidence-based climate reporting.

Research shows there are two types of climate journalists: prolific climate specialists for whom the beat is a regular assignment, as at digital-only outlets Inside Climate News and Carbon Brief. There are also those often known as “general assignment” or “GA” reporters who only occasionally cover climate change. These include, for example, most local reporters and business correspondents.

”Climate Click To Tweet

Specialist outlets, and their journalists focusing on climate change, clearly can do and have done a better job of explaining the influence of global warming on the cold snap, and of probing continuing questions for determining a causal link.  For example, that the Arctic Polar Vortex and Polar Jet Stream are “rivers of air” that with climatic change result in weaker jet streams which “wander southward.” Research suggests that this, along with the fact that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average, known as “Arctic amplification,” is causing the polar vortex to break up during this time of year. (Small general-circulation news outlets often do not have the resources to cover the complexity and depth of such issues adequately, and that’s clearly not their intended role. Carrying that kind of responsibility simply is beyond their purpose and mission.)

Climate change as ’cause’? Wrong question

Media and others involved with informing the public about the warming planet will do well to consider whether asking if climate change “caused” the extreme cold is simply the wrong question.

Rather, it’s more important to focus on amplified climate risks such as increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. As the U.S. Department of Defense said less than three years ago, for example, climate change is a “threat multiplier.”

A growing field of research among climate scientists is addressing these issues through the field of climate attribution. A goal of this “extreme event attribution” is to parse out how much of the risk associated with an individual extreme weather event – or a class of events like heat waves or flood – is related to climate change versus random variability, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

An analysis posted in Carbon Brief found that nearly two-thirds (63% percent) of extreme weather events studied “were made more likely or more severe by human-caused climate change.” Other climate attribution studies have included:

  • the World Weather Attribution project finding that “Global warming made Hurricane Harvey deadly rains three times more likely” (The Guardian); and
  • “Climate change made 2018 European heatwave up to ‘five times’ more likely” (Carbon Brief).

The broad scope and range of climate impacts clearly pose challenges for the large number of general assignment media and journalists who comprise the vast majority of those communicating on climate change for broad “general interest” audiences. All the same, a clearer understanding of what climate attribution can tell us, and what it can’t, can help improve both reporting generally and public understanding of the issue overall.

Better reporting on climate change and extreme weather

Those in media “writ large” clearly need to expand their and their audiences’ understanding of what a climate change story is: Extreme weather stories are climate change stories.

Reporters and those aspiring to be one should focus on the heightened climate risks associated with an increased likelihood of more frequent and/or more intense extreme weather events.

Best practices for reporting on, and just plain talking about, climate change include:

  • Make the switch from uncertainty to risk framing. Focus on when, not if, climate impacts will occur. As the UK-based charity organization Climate Outreach advises, emphasize climate risks and what is known, rather than the uncertainty and the unknowns around the edges.
  • Emphasize the overall scientific consensus. Research* shows that consensus messaging can reduce the gap between the perceptions of political liberals and conservatives.
  • Use data effectively. Resources like those available from Climate Central can help.
  • Redefine journalistic objectivity. Good climate journalism contextualizes viewpoints. It relies on the journalist’s “trained judgement” to verify and make sense of evidence.
  • Tell human stories; especially ones about climate adaptation. Focus on local angles, emphasizing impacts on, and connections to, daily life.
  • Report on different angles. Look at issues such as public health, business and financial developments, “clean” technology and innovation, public transportation and infrastructure, food systems, arts and culture, sports, religion and disaster preparedness. All of these and more offer angles for better and more responsible journalism on climate change.
  • Choose better visuals. Climate Outreach recommends visuals that have emotional impact and show: real people, climate change causes “at scale” and local impacts.

Media are key players in the infinite wheel of those needing to better tell climate change stories in all their sweeping and complex relevancy to daily life. To do that, journalists need to better understand climate attribution as part of more effectively reporting on climate change. That’s a charge facing all journalists, and not just environmental and climate “beat” specialists.

Universities developing the next era of journalists are adding courses on climate change communication. Students’ future careers may not take them into climate journalism per se, but they’ll be better at reporting on, and talking about, climate change impacts as they inevitably will relate to whatever chosen field they pursue.

Jill Hopke, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of journalism in the College of Communication at DePaul University in Chicago. She teaches climate change communication and researches communication on climate and energy issues.

*Editor’s note: An author of this study directs the Yale University program responsible for publication of Yale Climate Connections.