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The Media Must Call Hurricanes, Wildfires and Flooding What They Are: Climate Disasters

Connor Theriot, 16, has an emotional moment while standing on the slab of foundation that once held his family's home after Hurricane Laura  landed along the Texas-Louisiana border in Cameron, Louisiana on August 30, 2020. (Callaghan OHare/Washington Post via Getty Images)
Connor Theriot, 16, has an emotional moment while standing on the slab of foundation that once held his family's home after Hurricane Laura landed along the Texas-Louisiana border in Cameron, Louisiana on August 30, 2020. (Callaghan OHare/Washington Post via Getty Images)

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Climate change is the challenge of the century. All of the Western states are on fire. The Midwest is suffering a historic “violent” and “torrential” derecho. And increasingly strong hurricanes are battering the Gulf coast.

These are not natural disasters; these are climate disasters. Yet, in all the coverage of the wildfires on cable news this season, only 13% of it connected the record-breaking fires to our warming planet. It’s past time for our news media to connect the dots in their coverage of environmental tragedy, and it must center climate in the presidential debates.

When I was 11 years old, I watched the 100-foot waves of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami destroy the coasts of Southeast Asia. I remember being transfixed to the screen as people and animals were swept away by each set of towering waves. I’m still haunted by the climb of the death toll — 50,000 to 100,000 to more than 200,000 lives.

As the child of South Asian immigrants, I knew that these communities did not have much to begin with, and the survivors would be left with nothing. I saw pain and devastation on a scale previously unimaginable to me — and all I could do was watch from my TV.

In this picture taken 26 December 2004, Sri Lankan pedestrians walk through floodwaters in a main street of Galle, after the coastal town was hit by a tidal wave. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)
In this picture taken 26 December 2004, Sri Lankan pedestrians walk through floodwaters in a main street of Galle, after the coastal town was hit by a tidal wave. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Then, I watched it happen again the next year, in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina drowned entire neighborhoods. It’s 2020, and parts of the Ninth Ward still haven’t rebuilt.

The media covers the shock and horror of disasters like Katrina, but they have again and again failed to name the cause of the historic devastation: climate change. Katrina’s storm surge rose to record levels in the warming Gulf seas — waters are warming because climate change is heating up the planet.

This month on the Gulf coast, Hurricane Laura just recorded some of the strongest winds ever and Hurricane Sally set a new record for the slowest moving storm. These disasters are getting worse.

Climate change is a crisis and it's an urgent threat to American lives.

I am the executive director and co-founder of Sunrise, a youth movement to stop climate change. The power of our movement pushed Vice President Joe Biden to adopt a Green New Deal in almost every way except name. Sen. Ed Markey just beat Rep. Joe Kennedy in a landslide, in part because the Sunrise Movement — and students across Massachusetts — organized to protect our Green New Deal champion.

In the past two years, young people have sounded the global alarm bells and the world is waking up. Climate change is a top issue for voters this year. Compare that to 2016, when the  “environment” only ranked 12 of 14 on the list of top issues.

The media is making some progress. Consider, in 2016, not a single question about climate change was asked in the primary or general election debates. Young people had to campaign hard to make climate an issue in the 2019 primaries — but we did it. CNN and MSNBC both hosted climate town halls, and instead of just a few minutes of climate coverage (as it was in 2016), there were hours and hours of discussion about the crisis in the 2020 primary debates.

Lower Ninth Ward residents stranded on the roofs wait for rescue boats in New Orleans, Louisiana on August 29, 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. (Marko Georgiev/Getty Images)
Lower Ninth Ward residents stranded on the roofs wait for rescue boats in New Orleans, Louisiana on August 29, 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. (Marko Georgiev/Getty Images)

But as we head into the general election, all signs point to the media allowing climate change to slip out of view again. During President Trump’s town hall on ABC earlier this month, they asked him zero questions about climate change, the hurricanes or the wildfires. We can’t allow the media to put climate change on the sidelines of the general election debates.

Climate change is a crisis and it's an urgent threat to American lives. The West is getting drier, the fire season more destructive every year. Hurricanes are powered by rising seas and warming waters. The Midwest is trapped in a cycle of flooding and drought. The climate catastrophe is here and it’s not going away. Silence on the issue is tantamount to denial — and that’s a denial of the thousands of people dead or displaced by climate disaster.

The news media must tell Americans that the calamities unfolding on live TV in their living rooms — the record fires and flooding — are climate disasters, and that it will only get worse unless the next president acts.

The 2020 election is a choice between two futures: planetary catastrophe or a clean energy future. It’s time for the media to start asking real questions: Mr. Trump, Mr. Biden, what’s your plan?

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration of more than 400 news outlets committed to better coverage of the climate crisis. This Sept. 21-28 collaborative week focuses on the intersection of climate change and politics. 

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Varshini Prakash Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Varshini Prakash is the executive director and co-founder of Sunrise, a movement of young people working to stop climate change.

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