As much of Northern Europe has basked in unseasonably warm temperatures this week, the media have celebrated the warm weather, interviewing people celebrating the early season sunshine.
However, more often than not, the media have failed to make the link to climate change in their bulletins and broadcasts.
The warm weather in the UK, for example, is really concerning seasoned climate watchers. They are right to be worried. This week, Britain experienced its warmest winter temperature on record.
The effect of the temperatures has been devastating. In the last few days, the woodland made famous in AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories has caught fire, as has Saddleworth Moor, which is more symbolic of brooding mist and drizzle, caught light too.
The Saddleworth fire, which has now been put out, was described by one witness as “apocalyptic”, and by the West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue as “one of the biggest moorland fires we’ve ever had to deal with.”
And it’s February, normally one of the UK’s wettest or coldest months.
As we witness climate silence from large parts of the media, some commentators are screaming that this is not normal, that this is climate change in action.
One person complained to the BBC to ask why “didn’t your reporter interview any young people to ask them how they thought extreme weather like this will impact them in the future? … Young people have to face greater agricultural damage, mass migration as agriculture collapses in other parts of the world, sea level rise, with countless £billions to relocate residents away from the coast, and they must witness appalling damage to wildlife that older viewers say they care about.”
Jonn Elledge, the Assistant Editor of the New Statesman magazine, outlined his frustration in a comment piece. “The UK’s unseasonal weather, dubbed ‘glorious’ by a complacent press, feels like a sign that something is horribly wrong”, he wrote this week.
He continued: “Because this isn’t good, is it? However enjoyable the unreasonable sunshine feels, whatever feeling of relief it instils in you … the idea of beach temperatures in February should be scaring the living shit out of you.” However, often the media doesn’t cover it, because “the thing about an environmental apocalypse is that it doesn’t have a face.”
We may react to a child dying in the news with a heartfelt response, some scientists are warning that with climate change we are increasingly acting out of collective failure, becoming normalised to our warming world.
So if our response to climate change doesn’t have a face, it does have a fable. One about frogs. Earlier this week, there was a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which analysed Twitter responses to our changing weather. And it reached some worrying conclusions.
The paper noted that: “Climate change exposes people to conditions that are historically unusual but that will become increasingly common over time. What kind of weather do people think of as normal or unusual under these changing conditions? The reference point for normal conditions appears to be based on weather experienced between 2 and 8 y ago.”
Having examined over two billion tweets, the academics found that people often tweet when temperatures are unusual for a particular place and time of year, however, if the same weather persisted year after year, it generated less comment, indicating that people began to view it as normal in what is seen as a relatively short period of time.
Lead author Frances Moore, an Assistant Professor in the UC Davis Department of Environmental Science and Policy said: “There’s a risk that we’ll quickly normalize conditions we don’t want to normalize. We are experiencing conditions that are historically extreme, but they might not feel particularly unusual if we tend to forget what happened more than about five years ago.”
As a press statement released with the scientific study outlines, this phenomenon “is a classic case of the boiling-frog metaphor: A frog jumps into a pot of boiling hot water and immediately hops out. If, instead, the frog in the pot is slowly warmed to a boiling temperature, it doesn’t hop out and is eventually cooked. While scientifically inaccurate, this metaphor has long been used as a cautionary tale warning against normalizing the steadily changing conditions caused by climate change.”
“We saw that extreme temperatures still make people miserable, but they stop talking about it,” Moore adds. “This is a true boiling-frog effect. People seem to be getting used to changes they’d prefer to avoid. But just because they’re not talking about it doesn’t mean it’s not making them worse off.”
So do we continue our climate denial and slowly boil like frogs or do we act now in the radical way that is needed to avoid a climate emergency?
This record-breaking weather “is no cause for jubilation”, argues British Green MP, Caroline Lucas. “This is the beginning of climate breakdown, and for the sake of our future we need to talk about it .. But it shouldn’t take out-of-sync seasons and extraordinary weather events for the press to take this climate emergency seriously.”
We need to break the climate silence. Politicians and the media need to act.
One person warning how dire things could become is David Wallace-Wells, author of the distressingly titled The Uninhabitable Earth, who says about climate change in his book: “That so many feel already acclimated to the prospect of a near-future world with dramatically higher oceans should be as dispiriting and disconcerting as if we’d already come to accept the inevitability of extended nuclear war – because that is the scale of devastation the rising oceans will bring.”
But climate change, he notes, will be “worse, much worse, than you think.”
It is way beyond time for the media and politicians to reflect that climate emergency in everything they do and say.