Calls for regional consortium of news outlets to improve and expand climate change coverage
Last month, during the fearsome heat wave that saw Boston temperatures soar to 98 degrees Fahrenheit for two days in a row, 400 chickens died in New Hampshire.
According to the Boston Globe, they succumbed to “heatstroke at Vernon Family Farm in Newfields, N.H., around 5 p.m. Saturday when the temperature peaked and the farm could not save them…” The article went on to explain that temperatures got up to 90 degrees in Newfields that day. But chickens cannot take heat over 106 degrees. And, despite the best efforts of the farm staff to keep them cool, the birds expired.
A New Hampshire Union Leader article provided more detail. Farm owner Jeremiah Vernon said that the heat index (a measure of how hot it really feels when relative humidity is factored in with the actual air temperature) on his farm just after 5 p.m. on July 20 when the chickens died was over 110 degrees—and added that another southern NH farm lost 300 chickens the same day. He also mentioned that “the farm has spent about $2,000 to buy generators and circulation fans to help prevent illness in the event of another summer heat wave.” Something he had obviously never had to consider over the farm’s previous 10 years of operation. Several of which were each the hottest years on record in turn worldwide.
As 2018 was. And 2019 may be. June was the hottest month on record. And then July was, too. Global average temperatures are continuing to climb. Month by month. Year by year. There is some fluctuation. Some cooler months and years. But only cooler relative to the ever-hotter new normal. The general trend is upward. And the speed of that climb is accelerating.
Even so, the death of hundreds of chickens from overheating was an unusual enough occurrence to be worth reporting in major New England newspapers. But apparently not alarming enough to mention the role that global warming is playing in increasing the number and severity of hot days summer by summer. Despite happening in the same month that the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report, “Killer Heat in the United States: Climate Choices and the Future of Dangerously Hot Days.” Which used the best available scientific data to make the following predictions for New Hampshire:
Historically, there have been three days per year on average with a heat index above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. This would increase to 23 days per year on average by midcentury and 49 by the century’s end. Limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius [3.6 degrees Fahrenheit] above pre-industrial levels could reduce the frequency of such days to 17 per year on average.
By the end of the century, an estimated 970,000 people would be exposed to a heat index above 90 degrees Fahrenheit for the equivalent of two months or more per year. By limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius, all residents would avoid such days of extreme conditions.
Historically, there have been zero days per year on average with a heat index above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. This would increase to six days per year on average by midcentury and 19 by the century’s end. Of the cities with a population of 50,000 or more in the state, Dover and Nashua would experience the highest frequency of these days. Limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels would cap the frequency of such days at two per year on average.
Both the Globe and the Union Leader wrote articles highlighting the report’s findings, to their credit. But neither article echoed the Union of Concerned Scientists’ oft-repeated point that only limiting temperature rise 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels can prevent such calamitous outcomes. And neither publication mentioned global warming as a likely causal factor in the death of the chickens—given that the heat index got up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit the day the doomed birds perished—in their coverage of that story. Even though the UCS report states that the historic average number of days with a heat index over 100 in New Hampshire is “zero.”
This year there was at least one such day. So that isn’t normal. And although it’s difficult to peg particular weather events to global warming, it is thus definitely worth mentioning the strong possibility of a connection in this case. For a very good reason beyond the importance of keeping the societal discussion of global warming going hereabouts: The birds’ deaths add to a growing mountain of evidence that global warming is already beginning to threaten food production.
Like it or not, chickens are an important part of our food supply. But increasingly severe weather caused by a swiftly-heating planet is triggering major floods, major droughts, devastating wind storms, vast wildfires, and the spread of once-tropical insects and diseases—all of which harm crops and food animals, and put our future food security at risk. As sea level rise is starting to impinge on growing lands in low-lying areas. Making the NH chickens the equivalent of canaries in a coal mine when it comes to warning us of the looming danger to planetary food supplies—and highlighting a major problem with allowing average temperatures to continue spiraling skyward.
However, the planet is not getting hotter on its own. It is heating up because governments and major corporations are allowing the amount of carbon that human civilization is burning in the form of oil, gas, and coal to continue to increase. Putting more and more carbon dioxide—the main greenhouse gas—into the atmosphere every year. Despite those same governments and corporations paying lip service to the importance of decreasing the amount of carbon we burn. While the scientific consensus is now agreeing that the only way for our civilization—and perhaps humanity itself—to survive the rolling apocalypse that is human-induced global warming is to bring the net amount of carbon emissions (after somehow deploying carbon capture technologies on an industrial scale) to zero by 2030. A mere decade hence.
Yet in June, Bloomberg reported that “Global carbon emissions jumped the most in seven years in 2018 as energy demand surged, according to BP’s annual review of world energy…” So even huge climate criminal multinationals are aware that carbon emissions have continued to climb unabated—except for a short period after the 2008 financial collapse when manufacturing and transport slowed for a time across the globe.
All of which is to say that journalists need to do a much better job of covering global warming and its many dangerous effects. Too many stories like the sad premature death of the NH chickens do relate to climate change. But that critical angle too often goes unmentioned. And people then go about their daily lives thinking that global warming is something that will only affect humans in the far future or not at all.
WBUR just ran an interesting story on a network of major news outlets in Florida—a traditionally conservative state gradually coming to a political consensus that climate change is real—that have committed to collaborative coverage of the very obvious and constant effects of global warming in that low-lying subtropical farm state. Reporters and editors at those operations have decided that it’s their responsibility to work together to give this most dangerous of crises the constant attention it deserves.
And that’s clearly something that we need to do here in New England.
Especially in the Bay State, where the Union of Concerned Scientists projections are even more dire: “Historically, the heat index has topped 90 degrees in Massachusetts seven days a year, on average.” But if there is no global action to significantly lower carbon emissions, that number would increase to “an average of 33 days per year by mid-century and 62 by century’s end.” Furthermore, the Commonwealth “currently averages no days when the heat index tops 100 degrees,” but without changes to global emissions that figure would rise to “10 days by mid-century and 26 days by century’s end.”
So I’m writing to commit DigBoston to three things.
First, this publication is going on record in joining the environmental movement aimed at slowing human-induced global warming—stopping it no longer being possible. My colleagues and I accept the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is a terminal threat to Earth’s biosphere and to our species.
Second, we will strive to run more and better coverage of global warming in our own pages. And we will do everything we can to provide regular information on ways people can join together to build the movement to mitigate it.
Third, we are declaring our desire to help start a consortium of news outlets interested in working collectively to improve and expand coverage of global warming in New England. Alternatively, we will happily join an existing effort along those lines, should one we’re unaware of be underway.
Environmental journalists interested in writing for us—and environmental activists and organizations that wish to submit op-eds—are invited to email Chris Faraone and me with pitches at [email protected].
And editors, publishers, and producers of news outlets interested in starting talks aimed at creating a reporting consortium on global warming in New England are strongly encouraged to contact us at the same email address.
We’re all overdue to take such steps. But journalists in the northeastern US can help change a lot more hearts and minds about the need to make slowing climate change a societal priority, if we work together.
Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.