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Major News Networks Wake Up to Extreme Weather and Climate Change

This post is part of WRI's "Extreme Weather Watch" series, which explores the link between climate change and extreme events. Read our other posts in this series.

This summer’s extreme weather events keep on coming—drought, heat waves, wildfires, and more. The major U.S. news networks have been on top of the story.

ABC World News, NBC Nightly News, and CBS Evening News all covered a new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) linking extreme weather events to climate change. The New York Times, CNN, and many other media outlets reported on it, too.

Notably, Sam Champion, ABC News’s weatherman, took it a step further, saying to Diane Sawyer, “Now is the time we start limiting man-made greenhouse gases.”

For those of us who work on climate change every day, this call to action isn’t a big surprise. But seeing climate coverage on the network news – including mainstream morning shows like Good Morning America – well, that’s unusual.

A Flood of Extreme Weather

Of course, the recent run of extreme weather events is truly staggering and certainly cannot be ignored.

More than 50 percent of the country’s crops are currently suffering from droughts. As a result, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack just designated more than 1,000 counties across 26 states as disaster areas– making it the largest natural disaster area declaration in U.S. history.

This announcement comes on the heels of the record-breaking heat wave that’s been baking many parts of the country, including Washington, D.C., where it recently reached 105 degrees. Nationally, more than 170 all-time temperature records were broken in June 2012.

And then there are the massive wildfires have finally been contained in Colorado and elsewhere. The largest one in Waldo Canyon burned more than 18,200 acres and destroyed more than 340 homes. (My colleague, Kelly Levin, explained the connection between forest fires and climate change in a recent blog post.)

<p>Tom Karl, director of NOAA\'s National Climatic Data Center, recently appeared on NBC\'s Nightly News (shown here), as well as other news programs. Photo credit: NBC</p>

Tom Karl, director of NOAA's National Climatic Data Center, recently appeared on NBC's Nightly News (shown here), as well as other news programs. Photo credit: NBC

On top of these events, the new NOAA report makes the connection between some types of extreme weather and climate change. The report goes further than most previous reports in drawing direct links between particular disasters and human-caused climate change by showing that the probability of such events occurring is significantly greater in a warming world.

As Thomas Karl, director of the National Climatic Data Center, explained on PBS NewsHour: “The scientific evidence, the analysis done, the look at climate models, the look at the observation of data leads one to believe that humans, in fact, are making these events more intense and stronger than they would otherwise have been.”

Media Can Make a Difference

It’s certainly too soon to say whether the mainstream media— especially the networks— have truly shifted gears on climate change. The national news outlets have notoriously under-reported issues of climate change in recent years. According to recent analysis by Media Matters, coverage of climate change dropped 72 percent between 2009 and 2011.

To me, however, the recent coverage is an indication that the link between climate change and extreme weather is starting to be better understood. Perhaps as this information is beamed into people’s TV sets (or at least their iPads), we’ll find climate change will move back toward the center of our everyday conversations.

A new poll released on Friday by the Washington Post and Stanford University found that 60 percent of people believe that “patterns around the world have been more unstable in the past three years than previously.”

I’ve thought for a while that extreme weather events taking a toll in our backyards—like heat waves and storms—strike people in a way that ice melting in the Arctic simply doesn’t.

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco had a similar take:

“Many people around the world are beginning to appreciate that climate change is under way, that it's having consequences that are playing out in real time and, in the United States at least, we are seeing more and more examples of extreme weather and extreme climate-related events.”

She continued:

“People's perceptions in the United States at least are in many cases beginning to change as they experience something first-hand that they at least think is directly attributable to climate change.”

Time will tell if the shift in perceptions continues. Certainly, the media can play an important role in helping people understand the links between extreme weather and climate change, and perhaps spur people– and even some politicians– to do something about it.

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