Why Journalists Need to Connect Extreme Weather to Climate Change

Fallen and damaged saguaro cactus on August 3, 2023, after weeks of over 110-degree temperatures in Phoenix on August 3, 2023. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

This summer has been a season of weather extremes. July 4 was the planet’s hottest day on record — before it was shattered the next day and the next. In June, temperatures reached triple digits in Beijing, and less than two months later, torrential rain and flooding forced tens of thousands to evacuate the city. Last week, thunderstorms left nearly a million Americans in the East and Southeast without power, while cactuses have shriveled and died in Phoenix, where temperatures were over 110 degrees for 31 straight days. 

These extreme weather events have not happened in a vacuum. What they share is a connection to a warming planet. 

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Last month, the NBCU News Group Standards Department, in conjunction with the NBC News Climate Unit, issued guidance that all platforms must now include in their coverage “the clear scientific connections between this summer’s extraordinary weather conditions and the effects of human-caused climate change.” It’s the responsibility of journalists to provide context as to why these events and disasters are happening, said Brian Carovillano, senior vice president and head of Standards at the NBCU News Group.  

“This is a standards issue because you’re not telling a complete story if you aren’t providing that critical context,” said Carovillano. “It’s the story behind a lot of the stories we cover.”

Below, Carovillano explains the reasoning behind the department’s climate guidance and how reporters in all beats can think about incorporating the effects of climate change in their coverage. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

You recently issued guidance that reporters covering extreme heat need to mention its connection to climate change. Does explaining this tie feel more crucial than ever?

Carovillano: I’ve been saying for a long time to anyone who would listen that I think this is ultimately the most important story in the world. It’s also a really challenging story for journalists, because it’s easy for people to tune out the doom-and-gloom nature of climate coverage. Like the latest U.N. report comes out and tells us something that we already kind of instinctively know and have been hearing about for 30 years, and yet it’s changing the planet that we live on — what could be more important than that? And so, we have to find ways to cover it that are engaging and interesting for people. But the answer is never to not cover it.

You’re touching on climate fatigue. Certain terms lose their power over time and through excessive usage; people tend to especially glaze over them if they are broad and abstract. “Diversity” and “climate change” come to mind. What are ways journalists can talk about climate change without simply saying, “this is climate change”?

Carovillano: For years, we’ve been hearing about climate change as a theoretical or abstract threat. And yet, now, here it is, it’s actually happening to us. It’s playing out in our communities, across the country and around the world. In a way, this is the opportunity we’ve been waiting for — there’s no challenge in showing people how climate change is impacting them when it’s 116 degrees outside for 30 days in a row. Let’s not miss the opportunity to tell that story in ways that are a lot more engaging than in the theoretical type of coverage. 

But there’s a whole standards component to this, too. That’s sort of what prompted me to issue this guidance — part of being head of standards for a news organization is looking at our coverage and making sure that it’s as strong, journalistically, as it possibly can be. And so if we’re not including this critical facet of the story, then I don’t think it’s as strong as it can be. 

As hurricane season becomes more dire and we move into winter, should we be adding context about climate change in those extreme weather stories, too?

Carovillano: Yeah, and I don’t think it has to be elaborate. Sometimes it’s enough to just say it in the script of the story that this is weather or conditions that are fueled by climate change, whether that’s because of a warming ocean or warming atmosphere or other factors. And the nice thing about having a climate unit at NBC is they have those resources at their disposal, and every time you do a story about a hurricane or extreme heat event, you just have to make sure it gets incorporated into your story in a compelling and interesting way. Because I do think it’s critical to telling the hurricane story, too. If we’re getting more hurricanes and the hurricanes are stronger, that’s a direct impact from climate change. And so if we’re not including that in our coverage, if we’re standing there knee deep in the water in Florida and we don’t get around to mentioning climate change, that story is incomplete.

As you said, adding a nod to climate change is necessary for telling the full story. Do you think journalists should take it a step further and explain how we ended up in this mess in the first place? Would another step be to lean into solutions?

Carovillano: I think people connect with stories about solutions. Because with climate change, there could be this feeling like, I’m just one person, what can I do? If we could tell stories of people who are actually doing things where they live, or there are communities actually making a difference, it actually takes away that feeling of helplessness. It also gets out of that doom-and-gloom cycle. People don’t respond well to relentless negativity. It’s part of our responsibility to tell our stories in ways that people actually want to read them. And so that compels us to look for ways to cover the story that aren’t just relentlessly negative, and solutions is one really good strategy for doing that.

If you were to look at climate-related headlines at conservative outlets, they are often about how environmental-friendly policy is flawed and will end up hurting taxpayers. It’s a shift from earlier false conservative narratives that were arguably more harmful like, “climate change is not real.” How should journalists think about combating false or harmful narratives? 

Carovillano: There’s less of a political debate around the realness of climate change than there was even a couple of years ago, and that hasn’t gotten much attention. The realness of climate change is an established scientific fact at this point, and we should cover it that way. It’s not a both-sides story. There’s a lot of different areas in which there’s a scientific consensus and there’s a loud cacophony of people saying otherwise, but that doesn’t change the scientific consensus, right? It doesn’t mean you have to deny those voices exist, but you have to present them in a way where there’s not an equivalence to it. And climate is one of those areas. 

Maybe there’s a risk in making a comparison to racism here, but I should be able to write in a script or a story that racism is bad without saying, “but these people over here said racism is good.” Racism is bad — it’s an incontrovertible fact. The climate is changing and it’s having an impact on all of us — this is also a statement of fact that doesn’t require qualification or balance. 

Any last guidance? What other advice do you have for journalists covering weather events and climate?

Carovillano: I would just say don’t be scared of it. It is a difficult story to tell in a way that’s compelling, but we need to rise to the challenge. If our role is to inform people about their world, then this is unavoidable. It touches on every beat and every geography. It doesn’t matter if you’re covering China or automobiles or Congress — there’s a climate angle that you should be looking for in those stories and ways to tell that story.

Reporter Resources for Covering Climate Change 

NBC News’ Climate Unit offers language and guidance on climate connection to all teams in the newsroom. Below, the unit’s executive editor, Erin McGarry, lays out some of the best resources and examples.

If you need to verify whether a weather event is connected to climate change — because many but not all extreme weather events are climate-change related, McGarry said — these resources offer reliable, scientific information: 
National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center — official government resource for weather news
and predictions 
World Weather Attribution —  attribution studies that explain how extreme weather events have been amplified by climate change
Climate Central  — a nonprofit partner of NBC News that uses science and data to report trends; also creates visuals for national and local newsrooms.

If you’re looking for best practices, tips and angles on covering climate, check out Covering Climate Now, which collaborates with over 500 newsrooms to integrate climate coverage into every beat. 

Example of incorporating climate change into a story: 

In this NBC News story about “Chinese farmers hit by floods,” these paragraphs are found under a subhead named “The new normal”: 

The extreme weather events lashing China this summer are in line with what scientists have predicted if global warming continues unchecked. 

Prolonged heat waves, severe storms, intense flooding and widespread drought are all becoming part of the “new normal” of climate change, said Cascade Tuholske, an assistant professor of climate change, urbanization and food security at Montana State University.

“As we warm our climate, what was once viewed as extreme happens more frequently,” he said.