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Will Sandy's Strength Spur Climate Change Coverage?

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As Americans pick up the pieces and try to move forward with their lives in the aftermath of Sandy, the media have essentially shifted their focus and moved on to the news of the day -- the 2012 elections. This is generally the case with the media coverage after a natural disaster, especially the television news media. They seldom take time to explore the deeper connections.

Hurricane Sandy -- so far this year's worst natural disaster -- unleashed her wrath, and certainly left behind indelible scars in the hearts and minds of those afflicted and affected. In the past three years we've also witnessed some of the most devastating hurricanes including Igor in 2010 which killed over 275 people, Irene in 2011 which killed close to 70 people, and of course Sandy just last week, which killed more than 60 people in the Caribbean and 100 plus in the Eastern parts of the United States.

But the reality is, hurricane Sandy isn't the only extreme and unusual weather event we've experienced. We've had a year of record-breaking temperatures, and as of September 2012 have witnessed 329 consecutive months of global temperature above the 20th century average.

So would it be reasonable to say that something strange is going on with our planet? Is it even remotely possible that the drastic weather patterns could be connected to climate change?

As it turns out, extreme weather events are caused by climate change according to one of the most respected climate change scientists in the world. In an August 2012 opinion piece in Washington Post Dr. James Hansen of the NASA asserted,

"These weather events are not simply an example of what climate change could bring. They are caused by climate change. The odds that natural variability created these extremes are minuscule, vanishingly small. To count on those odds would be like quitting your job and playing the lottery every morning to pay the bills."

For a long time North Americans were oblivious to a problem taking place in geographically isolated places, because the images portrayed on the television media were those of the melting glaciers in Greenland and droughts in Africa. The television media thus neglected to bring the global climate change message closer to home, and in the process seem to have disengaged people emotionally from the issue.

But now climate change is knocking on our doorsteps. In the wake of hurricane Sandy, will the television media step up to the plate and provide effective coverage of climate change? Actually this is a perfect opportunity to reignite the topic of climate change and connect the dots, rather than squander away from an issue that could have devastating ramifications on our future generations and human civilization at large.

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When we look at a tree in the forest, it's not just a tree, but rather part of an entire ecosystem and it is interconnected with everything around. As my teacher Dr. Bob Kull, (Royal Roads University, Victoria B.C., Canada), an expert in systems thinking wisely said,

"Every event is part of a process, whether its financial events, social issues, environmental events -- there's a deep linkage between what's going on in the financial system and what's going on in the ecological systems."

But in most newscasts that I've been watching these deeper linkages are being ignored and hurricane Sandy is being reported as an isolated event. If the television media in particular, is not making the connections with an awareness of the larger context, and is not articulating that context, then it's failing its audience.

Providing climate change coverage in a manner that would resonate with the viewers is all the more significant now for the television news media, as North Americans are becoming increasingly concerned about climate change. According to a recent survey conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, 74 per cent of the Americans believe "global warming is affecting weather in the United States."

Here in Canada a survey conducted in August 2012 by Insightrix Research, Inc. for IPAC-CO2 Research Inc., a Regina-based centre that studies carbon capture and storage suggests, 98 per cent of Canadians believe climate change is happening at least in part due to human activity. To be sure scientists have also been consistently issuing dire warnings about climate change, which threatens the existence of our own species on the planet.

Now, I must confess, having been a broadcast journalist for over a decade, I have my own biases about the television media through which knowledge is visually and audibly constructed. Frankly, few would argue that sounds and images portrayed on television have a profound influence on public opinion and have the power to mobilize political action, more so than what's being published in the news papers.

Unfortunately the television news media, in my view, are not using their influence effectively enough to address this very critical issue, and instead avoiding it like plague. The media avoidance of climate change was most obvious during the recent presidential debates, as none of the moderators (all television news broadcasters) of all four general-election (2012) debates viewed by millions of people around the world dared ask a single question on climate change. A missed opportunity indeed! Perhaps they were unable to do so as some of the debates were sponsored by the fossil fuel industry, most notably the second debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, which was exclusively sponsored by Exxon Mobil.

Isn't it incredible that the fossil fuel industry has become so powerful that it can control the information being delivered by the media? Is the sole purpose of the "news business" to drive profit, or do they have a moral obligation to our society? I think there is a moral imperative for the media to "connect the dots" on climate change, which is already having cascading effects on local and global social and economic issues.

"We stand at a critical moment in Earth's history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise" (The Earth Charter, 2000).

In my bi-weekly blog I will bring snippets of my MA thesis paper "Connecting the Dots -- television news media and climate change," which explores the factors that influence the television news media in providing climate change coverage, by sharing various perspectives from a senior news producer at CTV Toronto, as well as the environmental and scientific communities.