Media coverage of wildfires omits one key element: Humanity’s role

Cars burn in the Dixie Fire in California.

This summer saw some of the worst wildfires in recorded history.  

Not just in the western U.S., but Algeria, Canada, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Lebanon, Turkey and Russia all faced annual fire seasons of vast destruction, fear and choking air pollution. And it’s not over: hundreds of firefighters continue to battle across California with the most active fire months still ahead. 

Global media outlets cover these firestorms like the disasters they are, but too few point out that human-driven climate change is their shared accelerant. 2021 may have been bad, but many expect the future to be even worse. We are burning our own house down. If we’re to survive, we need to acknowledge our pyromaniacal role now.

While wildfires occur every year and are an important element of functioning ecosystems, the scale of 2021 fires naturally raises questions about their relationship to climate change. The media often notes a changing climate can create conditions for wildfires to flourish, but coverage often falls short when discussing their cause and consequence. To be clear, increasing wildfires create a doom-loop that increases atmospheric carbon levels that risks worsening the next fire season.

In research published last month in Frontiers in Communications, I analyzed newspaper coverage of 2020 wildfire events and found that while 30 percent of the stories acknowledged a connection to climate change, few explicitly acknowledged its anthropogenic origins. I also found that only 6 percent of the stories mentioned wildfire-related carbon emissions. This is a huge miss. As both the effect and cause of climate change, wildfires may soon push the world beyond redemption. Already, the fires are contributing to nearly one-fifth of annual atmospheric carbon emissions.

Why does the media coverage matter? Scholars of public policy have long studied how focusing events — uncommon occurrences that happen suddenly and present harm to a particular community — draw attention to the problems, policies and politics necessary for changes in public policy. Coalitions and interest groups often strategically wait for “policy windows” to open in the wake of disaster events. 

These scholars note that environmentalists were able to capitalize on focusing events like oil spills to leverage environmental policy action. Similarly, as the public becomes more aware of the inter-relationship between a changing climate and increasing frequency and severity of hurricanes, media coverage of hurricanes should shift to reflect complex meteorological attributions and frame mega storms as focusing events that open policy windows and encourage robust climate policy. And there is some evidence this is beginning to happen. While global weather and climate information were previously limited to technical interests, it is now more common to find meteorological coverage of climate-related weather events included in the public news agenda. 

As a principal provider of information, media is pivotal in connecting the dots between wildfire events and climate change. In the articles examined, there were few instances where wildfires were explicitly tied to anthropogenic climate change. In instances where climate change was cited as a causal reason for wildfire events, a close analysis of the coverage identified two types of narratives. The first related wildfires to partisan politics and positioned global warming as a polarizing policy issue. The second presented discussions of scientific and technical expertise but omitted considerations of policy action. Notably, the latter narrative was subject to the influence of the first. Consequently, narratives which examined scientific causality as a nonpartisan observation of fact were much less frequent in news coverage.

This research suggests that even as news reporting may increasingly attribute the origins of wildfire events to climate change, there remain several frames that may distort attention away from climate policy action. When examining changing local conditions and policy considerations, it is far too easy for news narratives to direct attention away from global patterns of climate change, and instead focus on partisan political division. With a more deliberate focus on policy responses and detailing the frequency and severity of wildfire events across the globe, it may be possible to frame wildfires as focusing events that can help drive climate policy. 

Media coverage of wildfires and narrative framing associated with climate change are critical to creating coalitions that champion policy action and loosen stuck policy windows. The battle lines on climate are hardening. In response, the media must deploy deliberate and strategic frames in the coverage of wildfires events to focus news narratives on the need for large-scale accountability and climate action. This just may help nudge public opinion to demand for aggressive climate policies and legislation that would also attend to the conditions that are making wildfires worse around the world. And, maybe, help us stop burning down the house.

Stephen P. Groff is the governor of Saudi Arabia’s National Development Fund (NDF). He has written extensively on climate and development-related issues. The views expressed in this commentary are his and do not reflect NDF policy. Twitter: @spgroff

Tags Climate change Climate change in the United States Environmental Issue Media coverage of climate change Natural environment Politics of climate change Wildfire

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