As the 140-mile-per-hour winds of Hurricane Katrina raged through the lush lowlands of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama on Monday, as people clung to their roofs, as levees crumbled, as fires blazed, we met in the Grist offices and asked each other: “Wonder if anyone’s writing about climate change?” Frankly, we committed the sin of heartlessness of which journalists — and many environmentalists — are often accused. But then again, it’s part of our job to look at weird angles.
And as it turned out, we weren’t alone: people were, in fact, talking about climate change. On Monday, before the winds had even died down, Time magazine’s website was asking, “Is global warming fueling Katrina?” while analysts on FOX News and NPR busily debated the question. On Tuesday, outlets including The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, the Los Angeles Times, and Salon.com explored the topic in more depth. It’s a discussion with no clear answers — and no end in sight.
Is climate change an important part of telling Katrina’s story? Will Katrina, the most damaging storm in U.S. history, become an important part of helping people understand the climate-change story? How are journalists out there balancing the two?
To find out, we checked in with several prominent environmental reporters to see which path their coverage followed, and why. Here’s what they had to say.
Seth Borenstein reported on the damage wrought by Katrina and the necessary reconstruction efforts as part of his environmental, science, health, and technical beat for Knight Ridder newspapers:
On Monday, the focus of my story was on rebuilding, recovery — the more immediate story. Climate change got pushed aside. I mentioned it [Tuesday] morning, and my editors were interested, but they asked me to see who else had done it. So I’m not writing about the climate-change connection, because it’s already out there. I guess it’s good news that it had been so heavily covered already that we’re not doing it.
If I was going to be the only one covering it, I would cover it — it’s certainly not that my editors weren’t interested. If I could get [a scientist] to say point-blank this is the first climate-change-induced hurricane, that would be a story. The science isn’t quite there.
No matter what’s being written right now [about climate change], it’s on the edge of this story. All people are seeing right now is the dead and the wounded. Life and death is the issue, not the nuances of climate change. Life and death is the bigger story, to be honest. But I wish I could have done both.
The major thing to come out of this storm, just like the tsunami, is that it teaches us once again who’s boss, in terms of nature. That’s a lesson people need to be reminded of.
Andrew Revkin, science writer for The New York Times, has filed stories in the last several days on Katrina’s origins, the history of flood control in the Gulf Coast area, and the challenges of repairing breached levees:
Our coverage of research on relationships between climate patterns and hurricanes has been ongoing, and there [was] more in our package for the Tuesday paper.
Our stories have generally tracked the state of the science, which for the moment shows a small rise in Atlantic storm intensity later in this century from global warming, should current trends persist — superimposed on a far greater amount of natural variability in a suite of conditions in the Atlantic that appear to influence storm frequency.
As has been the case for 15 years or more, no scientists have told us they’ve figured out if warming will lead to more or fewer hurricanes. I recall no significant pressure from readers or editors seeking anything other than what we’re doing, which is to let peer-reviewed science guide how we convey what is known, and unknown, about this important question.
Ross Gelbspan, a former Boston Globe editor who has written two books about climate change, wrote an opinion piece linking Katrina to climate change that was published in the Globe and circulated widely on the internet:
No one asked me for the piece ["Katrina's real name"]. I wrote it because I was very disturbed — after reading and watching coverage of this mega-hurricane — by seeing little, if any, reference to the role of human-induced atmospheric warming.
[I'd seen] very scant attention to what we know about hurricanes — that global warming doesn’t increase frequency, but definitely increases intensity. The surface water temperatures in the gulf have been very high — but I’d barely seen that mentioned. Kerry Emanuel of MIT published a study a few weeks ago stating that tropical-storm intensity doubled over the last 30 years due to increases in sea surface temps; no mention of that either in any of the mainstream coverage I’d seen.
After I sent in a draft, the Globe‘s op-ed editor was quite interested — and very helpful in shepherding it into the paper. I’ve since heard that the op-ed is prompting further, more intensive coverage of the climate issue by the paper.
For some reason there is a tremendous reluctance by the press to listen to the scientists. I think it’s a legacy of years of deception, disinformation, and occasional intimidation by the fossil-fuel lobby. So hopefully, despite all the heartbreaking destruction — the unimaginable disruption of so many lives and communities — perhaps Katrina will be the leading edge of a sea change in coverage of the climate issue. Fingers crossed!
Mark Schleifstein, environmental reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, continued covering the hurricane with fellow staff even as they were evacuated from the newspaper’s office:
We don’t have enough space yet to do the climate-change story on Katrina. Our time has been taken up with the storm itself, both covering it and surviving it. We had to evacuate our building [Tuesday] because of rising waters, etc.
There’s been no pressure to cover the climate-change angle on this storm. I have in the past talked about the question of climate change and hurricanes in stories. I’ve seen some really poor stories about it, including some reprinted in my own paper.
I’m at ground zero on this one, and it’s certainly not appropriate [to discuss climate change] now. This storm was not created by climate change, and I doubt its intensity and path were created by climate change … This particular storm was intense because, first, we’re in the midst of the multi-decadal oscillation, which means more hurricanes each year during the 40 years beginning in 1995; the gulf off the coast of Louisiana had warmer water than usual, and there was a loop of deep warm water, a loop current from the Gulf Stream, that this storm passed over. Each resulted in a stronger storm, but I doubt one could just up and blame it on climate change.
This major event had better damn well bring the question of coastal wetlands loss in Louisiana more to fore, as that is a much more direct link to the amount of devastation experienced in New Orleans.