Environment

How TV News Gets All the Eye-Gluing Benefits of Climate Change without Having to Deal with It

Terms like "extreme weather" or "severe weather" convey destruction without any sense of responsibility.

Photo Credit: AFP

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Here’s a nifty trick that’s been on my mind lately. In case you hadn’t noticed, the weather news this season has been pretty grim. Tornados so large and destructive that they would have given Dorothy pause, 500-year European floods, massive rainstorms rolling across the land, record heat in California and Alaska, late snowfalls that boggle the imagination, wildfires that dwarf past ones in the American West. I could go on, but why bother since anyone who has been watching primetime TV news can’t but notice that staggering weather has been the lead or second story much of the time all spring and into the summer.

You’re probably wondering right now: But what’s the trick? I’m surprised you haven’t noticed yourself. All of this weather has a new, made-for-TV label. It’s now regularly called “extreme weather” or “severe weather.”  And that’s anything but inaccurate. The weather has been both “severe” and “extreme” this spring. The trick is that, as a label, “extreme weather” has managed (with rare exceptions) to obviate the need even to mention that any of this could have the slightest thing to do with climate change, with our overheating, over-greenhouse-gassed planet. Think of it as a fabulous form of recognition and denial wrapped in the same package.

The TV news gets all the benefits of night-after-night, eyeball-gluing drama in which the weather goes nuts, houses are destroyed, and people weep (or are stoic) about ruined lives. It gets to bring in the tornado watchers and the weather people in their raincoats and waders.  (Have you noticed that the TV news can’t report a flood without putting some reporter with a mic knee-deep in water?) It gets to focus nightly on those daunting weather maps with their blazing red danger zones, and offer warnings about what potential disaster tomorrow might have to offer, all the while remaining in official, blissful denial about what’s happening on this planet of ours. Somehow, it has managed to incorporate the possible effects of climate change into the nightly news as a major story, while excluding just about all serious discussion of it. Tell me that isn’t a doubly nifty trick!

Of course, if there’s nothing but “extreme weather” happening and that weather has no extreme context, no extreme meaning, then none of us have to worry our little heads about what’s to be done. Those trying to remedy the degradation of conditions on this planet can also be ignored, which is why it’s always great, as with TomDispatch regular Chip Ward’s new piece, “Trek West for the Big Picture,” to run into such a person. 

 

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

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