Will Hurricane Sandy Remedy The US Media’s Grave Failures To Adequately Cover Climate Change?



(CBS News, 2012)



Hurricane Sandy is clearly responsible for a renewed interest in the American press about climate change.  For a  good sample of how the US media has, at least for the short-term, woken up to climate change see an excellent summary of  press coverage of links between Sandy and climate change on the website Residence on Earth at www.anothergreenblogg.wordpress.com,

Will this new interest in human-induced global warming lead to a cure of the grave US media failures to  communicate adequately to the American people the urgency and magnitude of the threat to the world entailed by climate change?

Some of the press coverage of climate change after Sandy is likely to improve. For instance, there is some hope after Sandy that the press will no longer ignore the monumental scale of the potential damages  to the United States as our planet continues to heat up.  As the Los Angeles Times recently reported:

Perhaps the most important message from Sandy is that it underscores the enormous price of underestimating the threat of climate change. Damage increases exponentially even if preparations are only slightly wrong. (Linden 2012)

And so Sandy may convince Americans that the threat of climate change is real and the damages of inaction are immense. However, there is very little evidence in the most recent reporting in the US press on Sandy and climate change that other grave failures of the American media to cover climate change will be remedied.  In fact US media reporting on climate change in the last few weeks has focused primarily on whether Sandy demonstrates that the threat of climate change is real.  Still missing  from mainstream media coverage of climate change are the 5 features on climate change that US citizens must understand to fully comprehend the urgent need of United States government to enact strong policies to reduce US emissions of greenhouse gases. As we have  explained in the last six articles on EthicsandClimate.org missing from US media coverage of climate change are:

  • the nature of the strong scientific consensus on climate change,
  •  a clear understanding of the magnitude and the urgency of total greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent catastrophic warming,
  • a recognition a of the practical significance for policy that follows from an understanding that climate change is a civilization challenging ethical issue, 
  • acknowledgments  that the United States has been a significant barrier to finding a global solution to climate change for over 2 decades, and
  • an understanding of the nature of the well-organized, well-financed disinformation campaign that has been operating in the United States for over 20 years and that has been funded largely by fossil fuel interests and free market fundamentalist foundations.

EthicsandClimate.org has developed a video that summarizes these failures: Five Grave Communication Failures of the US Media on Climate Change that can be found at: http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2012/10/15/five-grave-communications-failures-of-the-us-media-on-climate-change/

In previous entries, Ethicsandclimate.org examined the failure of the US media to communicate about: (a) the nature of the strong scientific consensus about human-induced climate change, (b) the magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change,(c) the practical significance for policy that follows from understanding climate change as essentially an ethical problem, (e) the consistent barrier that the United States has been to finding a global solution to climate change in international climate negotiations, and (f)  the failure of the US media to help educate US citizens about the well-financed, well-organized climate change disinformation campaign.

Unless these other features of climate change are understood, there is a huge risk that Americans will not support strong climate change policy measures of the scale needed in the United States.


Linden, E. (2012) Sandy and The Winds of Change, Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-linden-sandy-climate-change-20121102,0,2994914.story


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law


2 thoughts on “Will Hurricane Sandy Remedy The US Media’s Grave Failures To Adequately Cover Climate Change?

  1. Don: As you know, I appreciate and admire your work immensely. But I feel in this blog you have, perhaps, let some unfounded optimism overtake your thinking. First, there really was no mandate for Obama and, of course, Obama never made climate change a part of his campaign or policies. Second, climate change remains relatively low on the list of concerns of American voters or populace and importantly the general media, despite a possible tic upwards by “Sandy.” I’ll bet you that the media loses interest about Sandy in less than a month such that reporting about climate change drops to pre–campaign lows. I’ll wager a caiprihinia at a beachside bar in Brazil….) Third, Obama certainly did not campaign against coal and I can’t see the media taking a strong stance against it either. Fourth, recently (not all the time) when the media discusses climate change it does so in the context of “disasters,” such as the recent and continuing drought and Sandy. It often fails to say anything about the plight of other countries or discuss climate change in the context of a moral problem or a an insidious problem that is creeping up on us (i.e., not always in the form of a disaster like Sandy). In all probability, if climate change can’t be discussed as an economic issue and job issue for the US it likely will not be discussed in the US media and, hence, the consequences of US actions as a large emitter of GHGs will not be discussed either. I hope I am wrong about all of this.

    John Lemons

    it is true that there

    • Dr. Lemons I completely share your pessimism about the likelihood of US action on climate change for the reasons you outline. Thanks for your comments.

      However, the focus of my article was not to predict that the media would finally correct their grave failure to cover climate change adequately, in fact the article claims that they will not do so even if there is some heightened interest from Sandy. Rather the article argues that Americans will likely never fully support the kind of aggressive action on climate change unless the press covers the 5 features of climate change that I identify in this and previous articles on the grave media failures.

      I agree completely with you comment that there is no covering in the US press of the impacts of climate change on the rest of the world and I believe the US will never do what we would hope of the United States unless impact on the rest of the world is discussed in the US press. In a previous article in EthicsandClimate.org I wrote about several Scottish Parliamentarians arguing before the Scottish Government passed the toughest climate law in the world that the Scottish people had to accept the costs of aggressive climate policy because the Scottish people had not only economic interests but duties to hundreds of millions of poor vulnerable people around the world.

      The focus of my article was not meant to convey optimism about the US Press’s coverage of climate change as a result of Sandy but pessimism that the US press is not up to the job. I do think there will be some short-term renewed interest in climate change as a result of Sandy but that interest, even if lasts for some time, will be totally inadequate.

      I do think, however, we all should be putting pressure on the press to reverse their grave failure on climate change for I think they could make a difference if they lived up to their journalistic responsibilities.

      Donald A. Brown

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