Thursday, October 25, 2007

Probing the roots of catastrophe

Plenty: When a natural disaster occurs, like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or the wildfires currently burning huge swaths of Southern California, the press has a duty to examine the underlying causes. Failing to dig into the “why” of a situation doesn't just mean forgetting one of the more important of the five journalistic "W"s; it’s also an invitation to leave the problem unresolved, ultimately inviting its repetition.

In the case of the fires raging right now along the California coast, a pretty convincing case already exists that global warming has contributed to the dry conditions that produced unprecedented "megafires" across the West. In a fascinating and timely 60 Minutes segment this Sunday, reporter Scott Pelley visited firefighting operations in the West to investigate the role climate change was playing in the increasing number and severity of wildfires.

"You know, there are a lot of people who don't believe in climate change," Pelley says at one point in the segment. "You won't find them on the fire line in the American West anymore," replies Tom Boatner, the nation's chief of fire operations. "We've had climate change beat into us over the last ten or 15 years. We know what we're seeing, and we're dealing with a period of climate, in terms of temperature and humidity and drought that's different than anything people have seen in our lifetime."

And 60 Minutes wasn't alone in calling out the connection. In fact, the media has been reporting on the subject for years at this point. But still, some reporters are missing the story. The Washington Times, for example, chose to lead their story by facetiously wondering whether it wasn't really Hollywood's loose morals that had brought on the flames rather than global warming. The New York Times ran a piece explaining the dry winds that fanned the flames, but made no mention of any underlying climactic causes. And in an otherwise excellent story, the Washington Post noted that this was the driest year on record, but failed to probe just why that might be so.

There's no question that the immediacy of a disaster and the subtlety of the environmental forces at play can often excuse a lack of deeper reporting. But at this point, the fires have been burning for days – an eternity in the contemporary 24-hour news cycle – and journalists have a responsibility to fill some of that airtime covering the possibility that climate change is contributing to some catastrophes. Only by doing so will the large, abstract phenomenon of global warming have any relevance to the average person, and only then will steps be taken to address that problem. Here's hoping the topic gets some more attention once these fires burn out – and before the next ones flare up.

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