Skip to main content

Let's tell the truth about extreme weather

By Jane Velez-Mitchell
updated 10:45 AM EDT, Fri May 16, 2014
Climate change is here and will only worsen. Get used to more flooding, wildfires and drought, depending on where you live. That's the take-home message of <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/06/politics/white-house-climate-energy/index.html'>a White House report released in May</a> that is part of President Barack Obama's second-term effort to prepare the nation for rising sea levels and increasingly erratic weather. Here, a flooded parking lot at the Laurel Park horse racing track is seen Thursday, May 1, in Laurel, Maryland. Click through to see more examples of severe weather: Climate change is here and will only worsen. Get used to more flooding, wildfires and drought, depending on where you live. That's the take-home message of a White House report released in May that is part of President Barack Obama's second-term effort to prepare the nation for rising sea levels and increasingly erratic weather. Here, a flooded parking lot at the Laurel Park horse racing track is seen Thursday, May 1, in Laurel, Maryland. Click through to see more examples of severe weather:
HIDE CAPTION
Severe weather: Flood, fire and drought
Severe weather: Flood, fire and drought
Severe weather: Flood, fire and drought
Severe weather: Flood, fire and drought
Severe weather: Flood, fire and drought
Severe weather: Flood, fire and drought
Severe weather: Flood, fire and drought
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jane Velez-Mitchell: Every day we hear about floods, fires, tornadoes, but not their cause
  • She says we need to understand extreme weather is in-your-face result of climate change
  • Velez-Mitchell: Best time to report about climate change is from a fire or storm, not a study
  • She says: We need to know our carbon-heavy lifestyle is causing terrible weather events

Editor's note: Jane Velez-Mitchell is an HLN-TV host whose show airs nightly at 7 EST. She has written several books, including "iWant: My Journey from Addiction and Overconsumption to a Simpler, Honest Life," "Addict Nation: An Intervention for America" and "Exposed: The Secret Life of Jodi Arias." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN) -- Raging fires forced thousands to flee the San Diego area this week, as mandatory evacuation notices went out to 11,000 homes and businesses. Even Legoland had to be evacuated as so-called devil winds whipped through the heat. As the chaos unfolded, the latest data from the U.S. National Drought Monitor shows half of the country is deep in drought.

Half of America is in the throes of a drought, and it's only May.

Welcome to another a typical day in America, a day marred by weather-related carnage. Ponder the new normal.

Jane Velez-Mitchell
Jane Velez-Mitchell

On Monday, two days before the San Diego fire, a wind-whipped blaze sent fear and panic across the Texas Panhandle. One victim said she "just couldn't breathe." Almost 100 homes were swept up in flames as thousands raced from "a tornado of smoke."

Meanwhile, in Nebraska, people staggered around wondering where their houses had gone after a tornado had touched down.

"I guess it just lifted up the house and slammed it back down, because it's just in a pile of rubble right now," said one homeowner. And in Missouri, people in the small town of Orrick stood around in bafflement after twisters damaged 80% of their town, including more than 200 homes. "It has been tough," said one woman. And, ma'am, it will likely get tougher.

Let's be clear. Climate change is here. And it's only going to get worse.

That's the headline of the new White House report on the environment released last week. The study warns of rising temperatures and sea levels, noting "corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington state and maple syrup producers in Vermont are all observing climate-related changes that are outside of recent experience."

It says many parts of the nation have already seen an increasing number of billion-dollar weather events: droughts, fires, storms, hurricanes, tornadoes and flooding, each with damages of a billion dollars or more. These events will continue and worsen, damaging roads, railways, bridges and electrical grids. Unless we do something -- and fast.

Firenadoes: An explainer
Evacuee: Wildfire scene 'apocalyptic'
The worst wildfires in America

Clearly, the National Climate Assessment, compiled by 300 experts over several years, is designed to take global warming out of the cerebral realm of egghead scientists and put it in terms that will resonate with average Americans. It warns that climate change is "already affecting every region of the country and key sectors of the economy." The report calls for "urgent action" to protect our communities.

But something's missing. Can an 840-page scholarly dissertation ever give you chills? Will any wonky report ever pack enough of a punch to make you swear off plastic bottles, switch to an electric car, start composting, go meatless on Mondays and demand our politicians do more to restrict industrial emissions? A study, by its very nature, is an abstraction.

Here's what is missing from our national conversation about climate change: an emotional charge that hits you in the gut. We need in-your-face cause and effect. And this is where the media needs to step up.

Every day, it seems, a new extreme weather catastrophe happens somewhere in America and the media's all over it, profiling the ordinary folks wiped out by forest fires, droughts, floods, massive sinkholes, tornadoes.

But do reporters covering the who, what, when, where and how, ever talk about the real why? Do reporters mention climate change when they're stuck in a torrential downpour or use an out-of-control forest fire as a backdrop? No. It's still considered inappropriate to talk about the big elephant in the field, namely what we have long accepted as an act of God is increasingly becoming an act of man.

The end of April saw a massive storm that inched up the Eastern Seaboard.

Florida experienced horrific flooding. Pensacola airport saw the largest amount of rain in a single calendar day since the first tracking of rainfall there in 1880, according the National Weather Service. A senior citizen died after being swept into a drainage ditch. In Alabama, people were reportedly climbing onto their rooftops to survive. In Maryland, cars disappeared as a street collapsed. Where was the discussion of human-induced climate change in the midst of the horror?

"It's too soon," is something I've heard as an explanation for why the news media avoids linking human-induced climate change to the breaking news coverage of a storm, a hurricane, a tornado, a flood or a forest fire. It's a shame, because that's when the conversation would have the most impact. It would force people to confront the effects of their own carbon footprint. If we keep saying, "it's too soon," soon it will be too late.

Some would say it's heartless to lecture people about our collective lifestyle when they're in the throes of a crisis that could cost them their homes and even their lives.

But isn't it the responsibility of journalists to tell viewers the truth, no matter how unpleasant? Wouldn't it help Americans more, in the long run, if we were forced to accept some responsibility for the environmental wreckage we prefer to assume is totally out of our control?

Just hours after releasing the ominous climate change report, President Barack Obama visited with a group of leading meteorologists, including TV weatherman Al Roker. "This is a problem that is affecting Americans right now," the President told Roker, seemingly imploring him to use the power of mass media to get the urgent message out to Americans.

I'll be even more blunt. Go ahead, weathercasters and reporters: Tell Americans precisely what we don't want to hear, namely that our self-indulgent, carbon-heavy, gluttonous and disposable lifestyle is precisely what is churning up the angry response from the skies and seas. Bottom line: The way we collectively live is just not sustainable.

Some might say it's irresponsible to connect any particular storm to climate change. But, with 97% of climate scientists agreeing that human-induced climate change is real, that excuse doesn't hold floodwater. The new White House report specifically links the increased frequency, duration and intensity of extreme weather to climate change.

The White House report says it's still not too late to stop the worst repercussions of climate change. If we really want people to change their behavior, we need a national intervention on how human behavior, especially in developed nations such as the United States, contributes to climate change. The time for that intervention is the next breaking news alert, telling us that yet another weather catastrophe has struck.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 8:15 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT