Hot child, summer in the city. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Everyone’s talking about the heatwave. Just don’t mention the elephant in the sauna

From fan shortages to sweaty insomnia, New Zealand can’t get enough of heatwave talk. But there’s one subject that few media stories about high summer temperatures seem eager to discuss.

Over the past two weeks, virtual gallons of digital ink have been spilled over the current record-breaking temperatures Kiwis are enduring all over the country. Every new high has been documented with the fastidiousness of a cricket scorer, and the media has covered everything from consequent fan shortages and exploding ice cream demand to methods for staying safe and protecting one’s pets in the sweltering heat. No heatwave-related topic was left undiscussed. None, that is, but climate change.

While most Aucklanders enjoyed a day off or attended Laneway on Monday, I, clearly hating myself, elected to use the public holiday to trawl through news archives. I wanted to analyse just how much media coverage climate change received over the past couple of weeks in daily news outlets that covered the heatwave. I examined pieces put up by the Herald, stuff.co.nz, Newshub, One News, and even The Spinoff between January 13 and 29, coincidentally totalling a nice, even 100.

The results were, well, not great.

In that period, only 11% – in other words, 11 reports total – so much as mentioned climate change or global warming while talking about the current heatwave (The Spinoff was not one of them). The results get more interesting the further you drill down.

Of these 11, all but two only mention climate change in passing, noting it as part of the cause of the heatwave. One of the exceptions is this Nelson Mail piece which delves at length into how and to what extent the warming planet has contributed to this unusually hot summer. The other is this Sunday Star-Times op-ed by Oscar Kightley, which not only mentions climate change in the headline, but ends with the sentiment that “we really need to get busy” on climate change.

In fact, two more of the 11 reports that do mention climate change were op-eds: this one by comedian James Nokise and this one by Alison Mau. I’ve also been pointed to this Waikato Times piece by Tom O’Connor, but because it was written back in December last year, it fell outside the sample period I looked at. And as the Listener’s Rebecca Macfie pointed out to me, she’s been writing consistently about these issues for a long time, though since my informal survey only covered daily news outlets, I didn’t count her most recent column here.

The other 89 reports often did go into the causes for the heatwave, even if briefly – but they neglected to list climate change, even when reports mentioned that temperature records that had stood for more than a century had been smashed.

Often, reports chalked up the cause of the heatwave to hot air moving from Australia, added moisture in the air from a warmer ocean, and a variety of other atmospheric effects. Yet reports consistently failed to go further than this and connect these conditions to the warming of the planet more generally. This Newshub piece is emblematic, pointing to “higher-than-usual sea temperatures” as the cause of the heatwave, and even quoting a meteorologist calling them “something I’ve never seen before”. But he linked them purely to “the anti-cyclone we had in November,” stopping short of mentioning climate change, the effects of which include higher ocean temperatures.

Massey University’s Dr. Jan Sinclair, a former science journalist whose doctoral thesis focused on media treatment of the environmental risk of climate change, says that for many years climate scientists were hesitant to connect such specific events to climate change, partly because the atmosphere is so complex, and partly because scientists deal in uncertainty. And indeed, some climate scientists continue to warn against ascribing specific events to climate change.

“They said for a number of years before 2000 that these extreme events are part of the pattern of what they would expect to see,” says Sinclair. “It’s only in the last seven years they’ve started saying this is evidence of climate change.”

This is partly borne out by some of the coverage of the heatwave. The Nelson Mail piece, for instance, featured climate scientist James Renwick explaining that “what we’ve seen this summer is very consistent with climate change.”

Why is any of this a big deal? After all, many of the reports discuss records being broken and insane-by-our-standards heat, so why the need to explicitly mention climate change?

One reason is that some form of climate denial – whether outright disbelief that it’s happening or a reluctance to do too much about it – remains surprisingly resilient in Aotearoa.

A 2015 Motu study found that less than half of New Zealanders were certain climate change was really happening – most were either undecided or disagreed. A majority also either disagreed with (27%) or were undecided on (31%) the idea that climate change would negatively affect New Zealand.

Even more optimistic studies show disquieting results. A Pure Advantage survey from last year that showed widespread Kiwi support for the Paris climate agreement nonetheless found that a third of those aged 55 or over thought our targets are “too ambitious,” and only 19% of all New Zealanders surveyed thought we should be aiming for higher.

So, as far as we’ve come, an information gap – not to mention a gap in enthusiasm for policy change – on climate change persists in New Zealand. Perhaps consistently linking the current heatwave to it as a matter of course could have gone some way to fixing this.

Says Sinclair, “If a lot of different media stories take the same approach and belief system in their stories, people will take that on board.”

Journalists have often talked about the challenge of making climate change seem like a relevant concern to the ordinary person.

“Any story that is based on numbers, statistics and graphs is going to be difficult to get your head around and challenging to hook people into,” broadcast journalist Samantha Hayes told The Spinoff last year.

“I think one of the major issues journalists have with covering climate change is that it’s so abstract,” said Charlie Mitchell, an environmental journalist for The Press and stuff.co.nz. “You can write about how New Brighton [in Christchurch] will be underwater a century from now and it won’t resonate, I guess because it doesn’t feel real.”

The current heatwave therefore seems to afford a perfect opportunity to rectify this: it’s tangible, it’s happening right now, and it touches on the lived experience of just about everyone in the country. Not only that, but judging from the number of reports on frustrated Kiwis unable to buy fans – as well as this tragic story of a Christchurch woman who died of hyperthermia – the heat is clearly a concern for many, even as some enjoy basking in the warmer weather.

Putting climate change at the forefront of reporting on the heatwave wouldn’t have just meant mentioning climate change as a cause, though of course that would have been important. It also would have meant using the heatwave as an opportunity to put the spotlight on climate change-related topics.

“To improve on their environmental reporting, the media can clearly report the facts,” says Sinclair. “But they can also look more at alternative technologies and protection options, encourage people to be actively aware of risks, and advise them on how to reduce emissions.”

Just as events like earthquake destruction or economic crashes are used to take a magnifying glass to their wider underlying causes and what we could do better to prevent them, there’s no shortage of questions the heatwave could make newsrooms ask. How prepared are we to face the effects of climate change? Is the current government’s policy of continuing to allow some mining and oil drilling consistent with its climate goals? How can the private sector change its business practices to reduce emissions? How can we reduce our reliance on plastic and other single-use materials, particularly now that China won’t serve as our dumping ground? How can we deal with skyrocketing temperatures without contributing to the problem? And so on.

Best of all, the record-breaking heat provides an easy news-hook for any of these stories, helping solidify the reality and impact of climate change for sceptical readers while also potentially putting eyeballs on the topic climate policy, something that might normally seem dull, but may got more attention amidst the frenzy over our current hellish (read: Australia-esque) summer.

Many of the reports I looked at already do this, offering readers everything from health tips for older people in the heat and advice for how to keep pets safe, to strategies for keeping cool in general and getting a decent night’s sleep. The coverage – including right here in The Spinoff, where that last article was published – seems weighted toward the reactive, instead of focusing on what we can do, not just as individuals but as a society, to prevent these problems from getting worse.

Fortunately (or, more accurately, unfortunately), the current heatwave won’t be the last time record-breaking temperatures and extreme weather events afford an opportunity to talk about climate change. Hopefully next time we’ll be ready.


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