How should we tell the story of super-typhoon Haiyan?

Local Input~ CNN logoThe fact that human activity could influence the Earth’s climate has, until very recently, seemed impossible.  Indeed, the idea that little humans on this immense planet –– in the middle of this seemingly infinite universe –– could have such an impact was the height of hubris.  But here we are coming to terms with the reality that we are affecting the Earth’s climate.  As a communication researcher, I have been interested in how the story of this shift in our relationship with the climate is being told in mediated communication such as newspapers and television.

“Super-typhoon” Haiyan is a horrible tragedy.  Thousands are known to have died in the Nov. 7 storm and that number continues to rise.  As I listened to and watched in the news reports about the storm, I began to encounter stories like this excerpt from a Nov. 11 CNN news report: “All these people have lost their homes. They’re now staying in tents and makeshift shelters they’ve erected from the debris. And while they say they received the storm warnings from the government and took what they thought was appropriate action, no one here anticipated that mother nature would unleash such fury.”

Ah, but mother nature can no longer be blamed for such devastating storms – at least not entirely; nature supplies the elements but our burning of fossil fuels is changing the climate and increasing storms’ intensity.

In a 2007 study, I explored whether climate change and extreme weather (hurricanes, storms) were even mentioned in the same articles; was there an acknowledgement, of any kind, that these phenomena were related? Less than six per cent of the articles from major U.S., Canadian and international newspapers mentioned climate change and hurricanes or storms in the same articles.  So I conducted a similar exploration of the stories about super-typhoon Haiyan.  What percentage of the articles from the world’s leading papers (as classified by Lexis Nexis) told the story of, or framed, climate change with the super-typhoon?

According to the database, as of Nov. 15, there were 1,186 articles that mentioned Haiyan – 93 articles of which also mention climate change.  That’s 7.8 per cent.  While my brief content analysis is far from conclusive, it would seem that in the past six years not a whole lot has changed: there has been an increase of less than two per cent in news articles that even mention extreme weather and climate change.

Now perhaps you’re wondering if there is evidence that climate change and extreme weather are related.  In a Nov. 13 article in The Guardian entitled “Is Climate Change to Blame for Haiyan?” Will Steffen, director of the Australian National University (ANU) Climate Change Institute, is quoted saying, “Typhoons, hurricanes and all tropical storms draw their vast energy from the warmth of the sea. We know sea-surface temperatures are warming pretty much around the planet, so that’s a pretty direct influence of climate change on the nature of the storm.” Myles Allen, head of the climate dynamics group at the University of Oxford, adds that there are “physical arguments and evidence that there is a risk of more intense hurricanes.”

Furthermore, if climate change and extreme weather are rarely communicated together here’s something you’re even less likely to see: extreme weather discussed with solutions to climate change. In my 2007 study, I found that climate change and solutions –– such as alternative energy, renewable energy and energy conservation –– are almost never talked about in the same story.  Similarly, stories with Haiyan and climate change solutions –– alternative energy, renewable energy and energy conservation –– appear in eight of the 1,186 articles.

The stories we are told, and tell, are our reality.  As the severity of extreme weather events increases, the stories of these events should include the reality of climate change and what can be done.

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Jennifer Good is an associate professor in the department of Communication, Popular Culture and Film.

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