Stop me if you’ve heard this lately: This oppressively hot weather is our new normal. Or: The climate crisis is here, now. Or: It may be boiling right now, but this is the coolest summer of the rest of our lives.
Thanks in part to the El Niño weather pattern—but also thanks to greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere—our world is currently experiencing what could be the hottest year since recordkeeping began. Last week may have been the hottest week on record. The most horrific part is that these jaw-dropping records are just the beginning. Even if the world were able to magically cut all fossil fuel use tomorrow, we’ve emitted enough carbon dioxide and methane that global temperatures will keep rising until we hit 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming above preindustrial levels. The rest of this century will be a game of catchup as we work to undo what we’ve already done; we’re in for many more hot—and hotter, and hotter—summers ahead.
This is, to put it bluntly, catastrophic. This crisis should be front-page news everywhere this month—but it’s not in any meaningful way. Most news outlets are reporting on the record-breaking heat, and perhaps offering advice on how to “survive” it, but I’ve barely seen any elevated mainstream coverage that recognizes the severity of this emergency.
Global warming is the key driver of almost all other climate impacts: rising sea levels, shrinking ice caps, fierce storms, and raging wildfires. Extreme heat can also devastate the human body, causing both immediate and long-term trauma. And yet, oddly, the media often has trouble connecting heat to the climate crisis. A Media Matters analysis of coverage of an intense heatwave in Texas earlier this month found that only 5 percent of national TV news segments mentioned climate change.
One explanation for this disconnect is that heat simply doesn’t make for compelling journalism. Back in 2021—in another summer that we all thought would define the “new normal”—I wrote about how cable news at the time was struggling to cover the extreme heat. (One climate scientist I know was bumped as a guest last-minute from a big cable show, where she was supposed to talk about record-breaking heat, in favor of focusing instead on Richard Branson’s brief jaunt to space.) A producer for a major news show explained to me that when it comes to climate change, wildfires and storms made for better TV; showing footage of people sweltering in the sun or a chart about the changes in world temperature compared to the rise in greenhouse gas emissions is boring.
It’s not just isolated to cable news. Until very recently, most news outlets illustrated their stories about extreme heat with fun photos of people on the beach or sweating it out on runs, which research shows can put “positive” spins on otherwise devastating articles. After a wave of criticism, outlets began diversifying their images—but illustrating just how hot it is outside remains difficult. (And the problem persists: MSNBC, in teasing a segment Tuesday about extreme heat, used B-roll footage of people lounging on the beach.)
Moreover, heat’s impacts are overwhelmingly felt by the elderly and immunocompromised, by people who are forced to be outside, and by people who can’t afford air conditioning—generally not those who set the news agenda. This summer, Texas has seen a number of deaths in overheated prisons, while several workers across the United States have died on the job. Those victims haven’t gotten anywhere near the national coverage of the young family—a Snapchat engineer, a yoga instructor, and their one-year-old daughter—who likely died of heat exposure on a California hiking trail in 2021.
But it’s not just heat’s invisibility and inequity that make it hard to cover. Research suggests that humans are able to adjust to new weather extremes in just a couple of years. Back in 2016, when I was working my first climate-related job at a communications nonprofit, one of my first tasks was helping to prepare a press package around NOAA’s announcement that 2016 (another El Niño year) was set to be Earth’s hottest year since records began in 1880. Every year since then has stayed within the top eight hottest years on record, not to mention seemingly endless announcements about smaller monthly, weekly, daily, or seasonal records. The heat alarm has been sounding so loudly for the past few years that it’s easy to tune it out—even the particularly loud alarms of the past few weeks.
Perhaps that’s something that viewers and readers should take responsibility for: that the media is partially reflecting our own inability to fully panic about something that’s truly becoming the new normal. The world is going to keep breaking records, and what worries me is that we’re all used to it already—that our reaction is to shrug, turn off the TV, crank up the AC, and go about our lives.
The Biden administration said Monday it would make almost $660 million in grant funding available for states to plug abandoned oil and gas wells—which can be huge emitters of methane.
Flash floods from intense rainfall have caused widespread damage in upstate New York and Vermont, killing one person in New York and forcing 50 to be rescued by boat in Vermont.
Stat of the Week
That’s the average amount of warming in the ground beneath Chicago since the middle of the last century—putting the city in danger of sinking as the bedrock beneath it warps, a new study finds.
Elsewhere in the Ecosystem
Small modular reactors could be a game changer for the nuclear industry—but could the climate promises of a technology that might be years away delay needed transitions in the present? HuffPost reports:
Rising temperatures were a big part of the reason a portion of the factory was undergoing renovations last fall, with workers raising the ceiling and rerouting part of the tracks that connect to a national rail line. Hickman was preparing for his plant to expand into a new product line: Holtec’s very own brand of nuclear reactor.
It is what some have called the “grave to cradle” model. The company plans to level the decommissioned nuclear plants it owns, including New York’s Indian Point and Massachusetts’ Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, and revive energy production at those sites with its own machines.
Holtec’s bid to produce the “phoenix of nuclear reactors” is unique. But it’s hardly the only party competing for a piece of what many in the industry predict is a dawning “nuclear renaissance.”
This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by contributing deputy editor Molly Taft. Sign up here.