| The mark of human induced climate change on recent extreme heat in Mexico and the southern US Graphic Climate Central | MR Online The mark of human-induced climate change on recent extreme heat in Mexico and the southern U.S. Graphic: Climate Central

How Hearst’s ‘weather wonks’ invisibilize climate crisis

Originally published: How Hearst's 'weather wonks' invisibilize climate crisis on March 6, 2024 by Greg Harman (more by How Hearst's 'weather wonks' invisibilize climate crisis) (Posted Mar 09, 2024)

The planet is on fire. Fossil fuels are the torch. People are dying from the heat. And much worse is on the way unless rapid, concerted action is taken to reduce global emissions at the root of the crisis. In terms of weather stories, there is none bigger than the impact of the climate crisis driving extreme weather events around the planet.

Given the existential nature of this crisis, the onus is on reporters to get this story right so that readers can take appropriate action and safeguard their lives and their collective future—including providing a habitable Earth for the generations to follow. But readers in greater San Antonio and Houston would be hard-pressed to find any of these simple but startling facts in eight months of offerings from a new Hearst Newspapers initiative whose stated mission is to provide actionable intelligence about weather events to help keep readers safe.

The “Texas Weather Wonks,” launched in the unprecedented summer heat of 2023 that claimed at least hundreds of lives around the state, have been delivering weather updates multiple times every week to readers of the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News. Their trained meteorologists tally over and again the extreme heat records falling, offering short-and medium-range forecasts, purport to point to the key causes of that heat—all while studiously ignoring the climate science and published studies pointing us back to industry’s polluting behaviors as the primary driver of all this extra heat.

For this column, Deceleration reached out to numerous climate scientists and meteorologists who make an effort to integrate climate facts in their reporting. And while the Weather Wonks are prolific, Deceleration read all of the stories we could locate by the team that referenced extreme heat and reviewed all the headlines the team has published to understand the scope of their coverage.

Deceleration found:

  • No articles dedicated to explaining the fundamental science of human-induced climate change.
  • No articles informing readers that burning fossil fuels is a leading (much less the primary) driver of recent extreme heat.
  • No articles citing the numerous studies that have been published since last summer linking our extreme heat to human-induced climate change.
  • No articles explaining how we collectively have the power to interrupt this climate crisis, slow the heat, or even begin to cool our planet.

In spite of this, extreme weather events are regularly covered by this team and they have been positioned as leading climate communicators in their markets. Yet when asked specifically about climate change, either in a Q&A or on the local public radio station, the Wonks have consistently downplayed the urgency of the climate crisis and its related risks. The result, we would argue, is the opposite of their stated intent, and serves to reinforce a community’s learned helplessness about extreme weather and undermine community efforts to use climate science in the search for climate policy solutions.

So what on Earth are the Weather Wonks up to?

At a recent meeting I attended, the icebreaker question was about how we feel about the changing weather. In this age of accelerating climate disruption, I found myself caught in a February whiplash—just the sort the Weather Wonks tackle. Was I being asked to respond to the surge of record-breaking heat and wildfires or the equally sudden swing back into the idyllic 60s? I know I’m not alone in this, but living through the hottest year on Earth in 125,000 years (if not more) has taken a psychic toll on me.

“Anxious” was the first word that came to mind when I thought of that returning heat. Then, considering my own city’s failure to even count the number of people who are dying from the heat, “Angry” followed next. I’m doing my best to make sure that these are not the emotions that guide my behavior through 2024, but I have to be real here. I haven’t let my weather guard down yet and the return of summer heat—in February—makes my pulse race.

Truly, we are living in a compressed time of colliding and accumulating disaster. Beneath it all, and too often underreported, is our simmering planet—as the now largest wildfire in Texas history burning in the Panhandle (and nearly U.S. history) reminds us.

Extreme heatwaves are again blowing up records around the globe. Andrew Freedman at Axios described February’s global heat event as necessitating a rewrite of “modern winter climate history” of the Central U.S. as “more than 130 monthly high temperature records were set from Texas to Michigan.”

Those searing temps, including triple-digits at Fort Cavazos in Central Texas, have delivered consequences in the Panhandle, where warm weather and dry land ignited in multiple fires. Noting how climate change had contributed to these conditions, Texas State Climatologist John Nielson-Gammon likened the fiery event claiming lives and displacing residents across numerous counties to “a hurricane making landfall at high tide.”

The largest—the Smokehouse Creek fire—burned over the town of Canadian and moved into Oklahoma. It’s going to be burning for a while yet.

On Tuesday, Texas A&M Forest Service reported five active wildfires across numerous Panhandle counties—nearly 1.3 million acres burned in all. Smokehouse Creek, the largest by far at more than a million acres, is only 15 percent contained.

It will take time to determine all the ways human-induced climate change contributed to this disaster, but Emily Foxhall at the Texas Tribune took a stab at an early assessment, quoting researchers on how elevated temperatures caused by global warming almost certainly contributed to the blazes. The immense fires fit right in with both climate predictions and the trend of a rising number of billion-dollar weather-related disasters hitting the state.

| Texas Billion Dollar Disaster Events 1980 2023 CPI Adjusted Image NOAA | MR Online

Texas Billion-Dollar Disaster Events 1980-2023 (CPI-Adjusted). Image: NOAA

While 2023 is well known as the hottest year on record, 2024 is continuing that trajectory. January 2024 was the hottest January on record and this February was the hottest February ever measured on the planet. Assessing the global condition, Umair Irfan at Vox noted record-breaking heat over the last few weeks stretching from Japan, to Kenya, to Brazil, and into Spain. Here in the U.S., Irfan notes, winter warming is occurring faster than summer warming: in some states, twice as fast, in keeping with the findings of the fifth U.S. National Climate Assessment.

The Washington Post describes this year’s “lost winter” in the Midwest, where U.S. many cities experienced their warmest winter on record.

None of this should be a surprise. It is but a continuation of deadly global climate trends.

Each of the last 10 years now ranks among the hottest years in the historic record.

The overheating of the Earth is tied to rising heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. It’s a rise of greenhouse gases that, despite three decades of international efforts at climate conferences, still shows “no end in sight,” according to the World Meteorological Organization.

Referencing the deadly fires in Canada and Hawaii and other devastating weather events of 2023, NASA officials were unequivocal when announcing 2023’s historically unprecedented heat:

Scientific observations and analyses made over decades by NASA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and other international institutions have shown this warming has been driven primarily by human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.


[I]t will get worse if we continue to emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into our atmosphere,” added Gavin Schmidt, climate scientist and director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies.

| Land Ocean Temperature Percentiles | MR Online

Referring to 2023’s extreme heat as “astounding” in a separate announcement, NOAA Chief Scientist Sarah Kapnick also stressed that the climate violence, being driven primarily by industrial forces in energy production, transportation, and fossil-fuel-powered agriculture, will continue until fossil fuel emissions driving the crisis “go to zero.”

As Deceleration reported in January of 2023, the extreme heat that polluting industry had injected into the climate system had actually been “tugged down” by La Niña in recent years—and yet the heat continued breaking records. In other words, when ordering the blame for the searing heat, we must start with the artificial collective human impact first.

Journalists have an incredibly important role communicating our tenuous footing in this moment. And, while questions remain regarding all the ways we are impacting weather events, there is never any cause to stop and ask what is driving the heat.

“The question that should be asked is not whether any of these extreme events are being caused by global warming but… to what extent they are being made more intense or more frequent by global warming. If it’s a heat wave, the answer is yes, it’s being made more intense and more frequent by global warming,” NASA’s Schmidt told Deceleration at the time.

To do otherwise, as Texas A&M climate scientist Andrew Dessler told Deceleration last week, is “journalistic malpractice.”

So how to explain the Weather Wonks?

The Texas Weather Wonks launched with big promises in the 2023 summer as hundreds of Texas residents were dying from the heat, according to Texas Department of State Health Services data reviewed by the Texas Tribune. (Due to the failure of many counties—including Bexar—to record the contribution of extreme heat in local deaths, the total is likely much higher.) The Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News promised to bring “science-focused” journalism to their readers. In a state known for its extreme weather, “being weather-aware and understanding how our climate works can be critical to preserving people and property,” the team’s editor wrote.

Yet the team chronically obscures the leading role human industry and agriculture play in generating the extreme heat that has enveloped the planet.

February’s extreme heat? The Express-News meteorologist wrote about the heat with a headline asking: “Should we be worried?” With no mention of climate change, fossil fuels, or the Earth’s dangerous trajectory, Anthony Franze concluded:

While it may seem a bit early for such temperatures, nothing is actually wrong.

A story by his Houston Chronicle colleague followed up a few days later. The story beneath the blaring headline—“What’s behind this rare February heat wave?”—also invisibilizes everything that the lead scientists at NASA and NOAA are screaming in their press releases and news conferences.

The Chronicle‘s Wonk meteorologist, Justin Ballard, lists the jet stream and El Niño among the list of causes of Texas’s rocketing heat. Then, after admitting that triple-digit heat is “fairly rare” in February, Ballard appends at the article’s conclusion that warming is happening faster “during the meteorological winter months.”

Why that warming is happening faster is left unaddressed.

Weeks after reporters around the world had captured the reality of February’s record-breaking heat, Franze again normalized the very un-natural excess heat in a story that claims in its headline that Mother Nature is at the controls.

In “Perfect weather in Texas on Saturday, but Mother Nature is about to turn up the heat” there is no mention of greenhouse gases or fossil fuels. Rather, Franze disguises the crisis by again focusing exclusively on natural forces.

Or take: “What’s making San Antonio weather so gorgeous? The same thing that made summer unbearable.” I’ll bite. What made 2023 unbearable? Meteorologist Mary Wasson writes it’s high pressure systems that stall out as heat domes during summer but offer “pure ‘chamber of commerce’ weather” in January.

How did the Wonks handle our hottest summer on record?

Recall that Climate Central, a nonprofit news organization staffed by both meteorologists and science journalists, found in September of 2023 that nearly every single person in the United States felt the artificial warming caused by climate change at least once during that year’s summer. In Texas, 17 cities researched experienced extreme heat caused by global warming for at least half the summer that had been made at least two times more likely by human-caused warming.

Victoria, Texas, experienced this artificial heating at a level that was second only to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where the heat of virtually every summer day was (in scientific parlance) “very, very unlikely” without the contribution of climate change. The cities of Houston, Beaumont, Corpus Christi, and San Antonio were socked by global warming at nearly the same severity, according to Climate Central.

And the Wonks?

A week after that stunning Climate Central report, San Antonio’s readers got a pretty thorough cataloguing of temperature records falling across the state from the Wonk editor Roberto Villalpando.

What was behind those temps?

No comment.

A story last summer about high nighttime temperatures asked readers again, “Should We Be Worried?” In a rare case where climate change is cited as a driver of extremes (in this case, the nighttime heat), there is no mention of just what’s causing the climate to change.

With improvements in climate science and models, climate analyses on extreme weather events are delivered much more quickly than in past years. In July 2023, for example, the World Weather Attribution Project dropped a 21-page paper (and guide for journalists) that explained how climate change contributed to the extreme temperatures of July 2023 in North America, China, and Europe.

One key takeaway that merited at least one buzzy headline from the Wonks:

Texas’s extreme heat in July 2023 would have been “virtually impossible… if humans had not warmed the planet by burning fossil fuels.

To highlight the performance of the Weather Wonks in Houston and San Antonio is not to absolve so many established meteorologists around the country who likewise resist telling the full climate story. But as a new journalistic venture crafted in this climatic moment, one ostensibly focused on weather and climate reporting intended to keep readers safe, this all represents a huge failing on the part of Hearst Newspapers.

How does a project launched in the heat of unmistakable global crisis justify writing that very crisis out of the narrative—especially as the weather reporting landscape that Hearst is setting up the Wonks to compete within is increasingly staffed by meteorologists who regularly direct audiences to accurate information about human-induced climate change?

Once something of a holdover for (to be generous) informed skepticism about the impact of human industry on the climate, meteorologists today embrace consensus opinion about climate change at levels shared by those trained in climate science. That is: They hold that that “climate change is already affecting the United States and that present-day trends are largely a result of human activity.” The problem comes in their public communication. After all, as this recent paper on the topic points out,

if people do not believe a problem is solvable, they are unlikely to spend time solving it.’

Efforts to enlist the meteorological community as trusted climate communicators in recent years have paid off. Research by Yale Climate Connections in 2022 found a growing number of meteorologists integrating the climate message into their work. It probably helps that it’s impossible to accurately account for today’s weather without it.

As Jeff Berardelli, chief meteorologist and climate specialist working at WFLA in Tampa Bay, Florida, was quoted in a recent PBS NewsHour story:

Well, the world is on fire right now. We got a lot of problems. We’re trying to save the world. I mean, that’s essentially what we’re doing by educating people on climate change.

He’s joined in that mission by Chief Meteorologist Shel Winkley at KBTCX in College Station, Texas. Winkley has “climate change is real” right in his bio on X (formerly Twitter) and was featured in The Atlantic in 2022 for his commitment to integrating the climate story in his weather reports.

Winkley was out of the gate in the first week of July 2023 with the fact that the earth was the hottest it had been in 125,000 years.

| hottest | MR Online

“It sounds alarming,” the host said.

“It is alarming,” was his reply.

Explaining the back-to-back record-breaking Julys of 2022 and 2023, Winkley wrote:

Yes. It is Texas. Yes. Texas is hot in the summer. However, the last two summers have been examples of the compounding heat that the Lone Star State and the Brazos Valley can expect most years in the wake of human-induced climate change.

In reviewing the heatwaves of summer 2023 and then again this February, Winkley rightly refers to  “human-induced climate change” as a leading force behind the heat.

Winkley offered viewers in Bryan-College Station an excellent overview of what he called the “fingerprints of human-induced climate change” in his review of the 2023 Summer. “Attribution science tells us that a majority of the nighttime warmth experienced in June, July, and August was made five times more likely by climate change,” he wrote.

In other words, it can be done. Meteorologists can tell the full truth about climate change. Just sometimes they (or their editors) design their work to do otherwise.

The Wonks initiative was first announced in April of 2023. It was modeled on a Hearst effort that had rolled out previously in California.

“Weather in South Texas has a huge effect on people’s lives, and we aim to report on it with greater depth and expertise,” promised Express-News Executive Editor Marc Duvoisin in a press release. He then dropped the following nugget, a false assumption that has colored the team’s failings since its launch.

We may not be able to do anything about the weather, but we can help readers understand and prepare for it better.

After the core team was brought on board, they were introduced by their editor, Roberto Villalpando, saying that they believed that “weather reporting should promote awareness over anxiety, and instill confidence through context.”

He added:

The Texas teams’ mission is simple: focus on the science, help readers navigate their lives, report the news relentlessly, use graphics and data to explain complex information—and have some fun.

[Full disclosure: I’ve been tracking this project closely because, as a daily Express-News reader, I felt a rush of enthusiasm when I saw the effort announced in 2023. I even applied for a reporting job, thinking it described an excellent vehicle for educating the public about the climate crisis. I didn’t get a call back.]

If these papers had teams of climate-informed reporters bringing full context to these extreme weather events, maybe the Wonks’ offerings wouldn’t matter quite so much. But, as we’ve seen with the Panhandle fire stories, weather events and climate stories are often shunted, sometimes exclusively within their respective papers, for the Wonks to parse.

At the risk of promoting both awareness and anxiety, Deceleration has leaned into the climate story understanding that it is imperative that all of us grasp the existential nature of the crisis. Yes, it’s impacting some communities and nations sooner and harder, typically those nations that are least responsible for the crisis to begin with, but it’s one that is also already displacing millions of people across the more affluent U.S.

The Union of Concerned Scientists regularly includes the climate crisis among the forces, such as nuclear weapons and warfare, that have the power to radically unwind industrial human society. And the world’s leading climate researchers have said that we must cut our greenhouse emissions in half (emissions primarily released through the burning of fossil fuels, but also through land-use changes that include deforestation for agriculture) within the next few years to avoid the most extreme manifestations of the crisis.

Industrially driven climate change—along with biological threats, state-sponsored disinformation, and nuclear weapons proliferation—is the reason the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ infamous Doomsday Clock sits at a mere 90 seconds to midnight.

Given the enormity of this challenge, it may actually be harmful that the Wonks have been successfully positioned as leading climate communicators in San Antonio, if not Houston, as well. In the rare moments that team members have spoken on the climate crisis, their tendency has always been to play it down.

In a Q&A with the paper, Franze offered this when asked what the “biggest weather issues” are facing Texas residents today:

It’s easy to just point at climate change, so I won’t do that. But I will point to some of the impacts climate change is having in the last few decades. Heat waves are getting hotter, droughts are getting longer, and floods are becoming more frequent. It’s a challenge that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Only it does. As the lead scientists federal agencies and scientific programs across the world confirm regularly: eliminating our planet-warming emissions is the only way we interrupt this crisis. Doing so may be complicated from a technical or policy standpoint, but the science is actually very simple.

In September of 2023, Franze was invited on the local news radio program The Source with David Martin Davies, to answer for the extreme 2023 summer and—at least according to TPR’s framing—discuss how much worse the climate crisis can get.

I challenge any listener to review the conversation there and locate the necessary messages of our moment—that 1) human industry, fossil fuels in particular, are to blame for the extreme heat, and 2) we collectively have the power to do something about it by reducing and eliminating our emissions. The closest Franze gets is to allow that when we review 30 years of weather data we can see a gradual increase in temperatures. Given what is at stake, and the very few years we have to make what climate science shows are the necessary changes, the conversation was dangerously obscure.

There has been of late some softening of the group’s historical resistance to reporting on the climate emergency.

Franze wrote in January about how the “effects of climate change have become more apparent” while suggesting that 2024 will bring more record-breaking heat, for example. And in a first for the Wonks, climate change and extreme heat were wedded in a headline opening meteorologist Mary Wasson’s February story about honey bees. Another recent offering described how “climate change is increasing the frequency of extreme weather events,” but (again) not what’s causing those changes.

I became more curious about how reporting on extreme heat is done across the newsrooms. As Deceleration widened the lens in our analysis—reviewing the front sections of the Express-News’s July, August, and September 2023 editions—we found the Wonks to be unfortunately unexceptional in their failure to integrate climate science into their reporting.

Important and otherwise well-researched stories written in the summer of 2023 about the impact of extreme heat on outdoor workers, public health, endangered species, coral reefs, rivers, streams, and area lakes were nearly all told without any attention to the driving force of human industry behind that heat.

One front-page story from Associated Press reporter Seth Borenstein was a notable exception.

It’s frustrating because frequently brilliant reporting is being done by writers and editors at both papers. I think back to the investigative series about rampant child abuse happening within Southern Baptist congregations. Or their excellent coverage of the mass killings at Sutherland Springs and Uvalde. Or how these papers have shown up to challenge the demonization of immigrants and continued militarization at the U.S.-Mexico border. In an email to Deceleration, A&M’s Dessler also noted the distance that has become clear between how climate is (or, rather, is not) treated on the news side versus the often very good writing about the climate crisis provided by (as Dessler wrote) the San Antonio Express-News Editorial Board and on its curated opinion pages.

Deceleration shared our key findings with editors at both the Houston Chronicle and the Express-News. We invited them to correct us if they took issue with any of the bulleted points at the top of this assessment. They chose not to respond.

We reached back out NOAA to confirm that human industrial emissions continue to be the primary driver of 2023 and 2024’s heatwaves. Spokesperson Theo Stein confirmed the fact.

“Nothing has changed since last summer to alter the conclusion that greenhouse gas emissions are the primary driver of the heat trends on land and in the ocean that we are observing,” Stein wrote Deceleration.

All we can think is that if Hearst Newspapers is serious about protecting the communities they serve from extreme weather events (and wish to avoid the “malpractice” tag hanging out there) they need to seriously reassess their mission and performance in covering what has been described by perhaps the world’s most famous naturalist as “the biggest threat to security that modern humans have ever faced.”

Yes. Truth-telling comes at a cost in today’s political climate. But count them and move on already.

The world in all its utter beauty needs you to please do better.

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