Skip to main content

Let's tell the truth about extreme weather

By Jane Velez-Mitchell
May 16, 2014 -- Updated 1445 GMT (2245 HKT)
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
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT