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More than 4 million acres of forests are up in flames across nine states, displacing over 500,000 people. Hurricane-turned-tropical storm Sally is causing tremendous flooding and property destruction off the Gulf Coast of Alabama and Florida. The worst of the forest fire and hurricane seasons remains ahead of us. 

In the midst of perhaps some of the most devastating natural disasters ever, the media continues to muddle the conversation when it comes to tying these horrific events to climate change. As you might expect, conservative media prefers to deny the existence of human-caused climate change altogether. They argue, for example, that the fires in California are fueled solely by coastal Democrats mismanaging their forests, despite many of the lands that are up in flames falling under federal jurisdiction. 

This narrative of climate denial coming out of outlets like Fox News contributes to climate change’s designation as a polarizing political issue. However, it is even more discouraging to see the rest of the media market not go far enough in addressing the causes and solutions to our increasingly dire climate situation in the context of recent events. 

To start, there is nothing “natural” about what’s happening in the west, what’s happening in the Gulf or what happened in Australia last year (remember the koalas). The state of our climate is a direct consequence of decades of rampant carbon emissions polluting our planet and warming global temperatures. As emissions have increased over the last decade, we have seen nine out of ten of the largest wildfires on record in California.

The intensity and frequency of the environmental catastrophes we experience every year are significantly impacted by anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change. 

In the discussion around these catastrophes, news reporting must discuss how they became so destructive and what can be done to mitigate them. After a mass shooting, there is discourse around the governmental systems that enabled the shooter to purchase their gun and analysis of the influence of various gun control policies. 

During the the Great Recession, news coverage documented the steps by the Federal Reserve that led to the big bank driven subprime mortgage crisis. Although certainly imperfect in their coverage, news outlets make efforts to examine more holistically other important issues facing our nation. 

When media organizations talk about hurricanes, forest fires or other natural disasters, they should raise concern with the decades of do-nothing climate policy that brought us to this point. Let’s talk about Exxon covering up the evidence for climate change in the 1970s and the oil industry’s ongoing lobbying efforts which sponsor Republicans’ and many Democrats’ tepid support of outright opposition to meaningful environmental legislation. Reporting on natural disasters must delve into why climate change exists in the way that it does today and critique political leaders who ignore these facts.

Further, journalists should examine how we might work to stop these events in the future because we simply do not have to be doomed to live under the eerie orange skies that covered San Francisco days ago. The solution to the forest fires is not simply better forest management, but it is transforming our energy economy, overhauling our transportation systems and investing in our communities. The solution is a new Green Deal. 

Until the media is ready to talk about natural disasters with the complexity they deserve, I’ll be waiting for the Knoxville Tiger to get some new friends as climate change alters animal migration patterns. 

Simon Jolly is a junior at UTK and can be reached at sjolly3@vols.utk.edu

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