Over the past few years, as levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have continued to rise, natural disasters in the United States and around the world have become ever-more frequent. In the U.S., in fact, extreme weather-related events, including severe droughts, floods, wildfires, windstorms and other disasters are now very often reported in the news media. The clear consensus among climate scientists is that—even though no single extreme event can be said to be directly caused by climate change—global climate disruption has already begun; and this human-created phenomenon is ultimately responsible for an increased incidence of extreme weather.
As perilous, troubling and threatening as this situation is, it also provides a series of as yet overlooked “teachable moments.” Journalists reporting on extreme weather disasters can accurately do their jobs in ways that increase U.S. public awareness of ongoing, disturbing trends in climate patterns. Relatively few journalists have yet chosen to do this. However, entirely by executive action, the Obama administration can take an important step to encourage meteorological reporting that will advance public knowledge.
Without question, most Americans become aware of weather conditions that will or may affect them through television and radio reports, online weather services and newspapers. Many media outlets, in turn, derive much of the data that they use to predict local and national meteorological conditions from the National Weather Service (the NWS), a bureau located in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce—an arm of the federal Executive Branch. Like every federal agency and department, the activities of the NWS are subject to executive orders lawfully issued by the President of the United States.
To increase public understanding of the impacts of climate disruption, President Obama can issue an executive order directing the NWS to make a clear recommendation–to accompany all reports on extreme weather events and trends within the country that the Service provides to media outlets–that journalists receiving such NWS reports note the broader context in which the weather event in question is taking place as they pass along any pertinent NWS-compiled weather data to the general public. The kind of informational public statements by reporters that the NWS can actively encourage may be variously worded. One possibility that the Service might suggest is that weather reports on extraordinary floods, windstorms and the like should note that: “Although no single natural disaster can be linked to climate disruption, the event we are reporting on is consistent with generally accepted scientific findings that human emissions of greenhouse gases have greatly increased the frequency and intensity of these kinds of very extreme conditions.” When members of the public hear statements of that kind from repeated frequently by trusted weather reporters–as will doubtless be the case as climate disruption takes an increasing toll in lives, injuries and property damage–they seem likely to gain a better grasp of what is truly at the root of many of the disastrous circumstances that are harming them.
To be sure, the change in National Weather Service practices that I am suggesting is not likely to dispel all public ignorance regarding climate disruption and its consequences. Some individuals will dismiss climate change references from media meteorologists are unreliable fabrications. Moreover, since it will merely be a recommendation and not a mandatory requirement, some media outlets may choose to avoid the journalistic approach that the NWS will encourage. Nevertheless, many members of the media may well decide to accept an NWS recommendation regarding a carefully crafted climate disruption statement on the basis of their trust in the Service’s expertise and/or their own understanding that increases in greenhouse gas accumulations are increasing the frequency and intensity of natural disasters.
To this point, American public opinion has too often reflected ambivalence, ignorance and a profound misunderstanding of climate change and its unwelcome impacts. This unfortunate situation—in part a result of misinformation and disinformation from irresponsible firms and industries—is difficult to remedy. However, what I have proposed may well lead to greater public awareness of the growing dangers that climate disruption is creating. It is simple and unquestionably lawful, and it can be accomplished by a single stroke of the President’s pen.