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After Wildfire Tragedy, Talk of Global Warming's Contribution Is a Delicate Matter

Experts say it isn't whether media outlets should link extreme weather tragedies like the Yarnell blaze to global warming, but when.

Jul 18, 2013
Yarnell Hill wildfire

Scientists agree that climate change was very likely one of the underlying triggers for the Yarnell Hill wildfire in Arizona that killed 19 firefighters on June 30. But while some of the nation's media have acknowledged global warming's link to the tragedy, others have ignored it entirely. 

The discrepancy highlights an ethical question that is expected to increasingly confront publications and TV networks as climate-related calamities are set to rise: Amid loss of life in weather disasters, when is it appropriate to speak of climate change? 

"This is a question journalists need to answer sooner rather than later," said Hunter Cutting, a climate communications expert for the non-profit group Climate Nexus. "Extreme weather is only going to get worse." 

But the answer, according to experts, isn't straightforward. 

The dilemma, they say, is not unlike the one journalists face after school shootings, when they must decide when—or whether—to link the incident to gun control. Both issues are political lightning rods for many Americans. And in the wake of both types of tragedies, journalists struggle to find a balance between delving into controversial debate and being sensitive to the affected communities. 

Jane Webber, author of the American Counseling Association Foundation's guide to dealing with terrorism, trauma and tragedies, said local news outlets serving affected populations should pause before naming causes and culprits in natural disasters. 

"You have to give people time to mourn and recover from the shock of the loss" before mentioning climate change, said Webber, who is a counseling expert at New Jersey City University. "The sorrow is so enormous when a town has lost a generation of people like they have in Yarnell. Chances are those affected communities won't be open to hearing that information immediately."

But Webber said journalists have a "duty and responsibility" to link the growing number of weather disasters to man-made climate change when the science is clear, because such stories raise awareness of the need for policy action that could help prevent future tragedies. That role usually falls first to the national media—whose audiences usually aren't concentrated near the tragedy or as stricken with shock and grief—while the local media can follow a few days later, she and others said. 

That is partially what happened in the wake of the Yarnell disaster. 

Just one day after the firefighters lost their lives, The New York Times published a story linking the 8,000-acre fire to climate change. That same day, the CBS Evening News dedicated nearly three minutes of a 20-minute show to discuss how global warming has worsened wildfires in the American West in recent years. The Associated Press, PBS, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times followed a few days later with similar reports. 

Drex Heikes, the environment editor at the Los Angeles Times, said within days of the tragedy, he asked Julie Cart—winner of a 2009 Pulitzer Prize for a series that explored the increase and costs of wildfires—to write the story

"If space and [Cart's] time weren't an issue, we would have published immediately," said Heikes. "The story provided context ... We want to tell readers the causes of these increasingly disastrous fires in the West." 

However, most state and local newspapers and broadcast stations in Arizona still have not addressed the link, nearly three weeks after the tragedy. 

The Arizona Republic, the state's largest daily newspaper based 70 miles south of Yarnell in Phoenix and owned by Gannet Co., the nation's largest newspaper publisher, has made one brief mention of the influence of climate change on wildfires since the firefighters lost their lives. It was buried in an opinion piece by the newspaper's editorial board on how Congress needs to appoint more funds for firefighting and to maintain forests. 

While the paper wrote several articles last year on the link between wildfires and global warming, it hasn't mentioned climate change in any of its non-editorial fire coverage this year, despite tens of thousands of acres burning across the state.   

Brandon Loomis, natural resources reporter for the Arizona Republic, said the paper does "intend to examine how climate change has affected and will affect Arizona forests and fire threats, including at Yarnell." 

The Daily Courier, a newspaper based 30 miles from Yarnell in Prescott, also hasn't covered the climate aspect of the Yarnell fire, according to the paper's online archives. Neither has the Yuma Sun, the state's third largest daily paper. A few outlets, including the Arizona Daily Sun in Flagstaff and KSAZ, the local Fox News affiliate in Phoenix, republished the Associated Press article—which identified climate change as one of the variables in the "basic equation behind the killer Yarnell Hill wildfire and other blazes raging across the West this summer." Neither did original reporting. 

All told, since the beginning of the wildfire season in April, local and regional newspapers in the West have covered the impact of climate change on wildfires about half as often as national newspapers, according to a new report by Media Matters, a media watchdog group. 

Tony Davis, an environmental reporter for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, the state's second largest newspaper, said he's been surprised by the lack of global warming coverage by local news outlets.

Davis said his editors agreed to let him write a story linking the Yarnell disaster and the growing number of large wildfires in the region to warming. The 1,200-word article ran in the Sunday edition of the newspaper—the day with the highest readership, reaching more than 360,000 people.

"Local papers can send five people every day to cover all the angles of a tragedy like Yarnell," Davis said. "I'm surprised climate isn't one of the angles, considering how much the region is being affected by it." 

Rising Climate Costs 

Increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from human activities have worsened heat and drought in the American West and have reduced mountain snow packs that provide water and keep soil moist downstream. 

These climate factors—combined with bark beetle-caused tree deaths, declines in forest maintenance and increasing human encroachment into woodlands—have created a perfect recipe for wildfires in the region, scientists say.    

According to a 2010 National Research Council report, the wildfire season is 2.5 months longer than it was 30 years ago on average. Forest fires in the United States  also now consume twice as many acres each year as they did in the 1970s.  The frequency of the most intense blazes, meaning those that are the largest and last the longest, has increased fourfold during the same period. 

In Arizona alone, fires have destroyed as much as 25 percent of the state’s ponderosa-pine and mixed-conifer forests in the past 10 years, according to some reports. 

Bud Ward, editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, said the local media can't ignore climate change forever. 

"It's perhaps acceptable [to omit the climate context] in the day-one story, given the extraordinary emotions surrounding the deaths," he said. "Going beyond that fleeting pause seems to me to be a breach of professional responsibility." 

Peter Dykstra, publisher of Environmental Health News and CNN's former executive producer for science, agreed. "Climate is an important component of the wildfire story," he said. "I understand a slight delay, but ... to leave it out completely is irresponsible." 

Both Ward and Dykstra said that environmental and science publications, on the other hand, owe it to readers not to wait to report the climate connection. 

"This is their beat, what they cover every day," said Dykstra. "Their readers come expecting stories that look at current issues through an environmental lens ... These publications should be the first ones to connect the dots." 

Climate-focused news sites like the Climate Desk, Climate Central, and Climate Science Watch, published stories linking worsening wildfires to global warming within the first 48 hours after the firefighters were killed—as did the larger, more generalist National Geographic. Grist, an environmental news site, followed a few days later. Many of the nation's largest science and environment publications haven't yet broached the subject, including Smithsonian, Scientific American and Discover magazine. However, many of these publications did publish stories about climate change and wildfires before the Yarnell fire.

Beyond Fire: The New Normal 

The Yarnell blaze is the latest in a string of climate-related tragedies in recent years. Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of New York and New Jersey last October, causing the deaths of 285 people and approximately $65 billion in damage. In June, a massive tornado flattened parts of Moore, Oklahoma, killing 20 people. Torrential rains flooded the streets of Toronto earlier this month, causing an estimated $600 million in damage. Weather disasters cost the United States $110 billion in damages last year alone, according to the National Climatic Data Center. 

The extent to which media reported climate change's role in these disasters varied wildly depending on the type of publication and the type weather event. 

Brad Johnson, campaign manager for Forecast the Facts, a group that aims to assure accurate news reporting about global warming, said the climate context in natural disaster reporting, including humans' contribution to the problem, should never be ignored—no matter how close the publication is to the tragedy. 

"It's frustrating," he said. "If a bridge collapsed and 19 people died, it would be very bizarre for journalists to ignore what caused it. ... Why isn't it the same for natural disasters and climate change?" 

Making the climate context a norm in weather disaster coverage could have powerful results, said Webber, the counseling expert from New Jersey City University, who has watched her hometown on the New Jersey shore struggle to recuperate from Hurricane Sandy.

Following a disaster, people often look for ways to prevent similar tragedies from occurring elsewhere—a concept known in psychology as "post-traumatic growth." When journalists make the climate link for readers, they help people see the need for governments to tackle global warming, she said.

But determining the best timing and method to do this will require trial and error, she said. Ward, Dykstra, Johnson and Cutting, the climate change communications expert, agreed. 

"It is a tricky issue, there's no doubt about it," Cutting said. "I have a lot of sympathy for reporters. It is going to take time to figure out what's appropriate and what's not."

Clarification: An earlier version of this story said that reporter Tony Davis of the Arizona Daily Star had to persuade his editors to publish a story linking wildfires to global warming. Davis' editors did not have to be persuaded.

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