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STUDY: Media Avoid Climate Context In Wildfire Coverage

July 7, 2012

This study was conducted by Media Matters.

While numerous factors determine the frequency, severity and cost of wildfires, scientific research indicates that human-induced climate change increases fire risks in parts of the Western U.S. by promoting warmer and drier conditions. Seven of nine fire experts contacted by Media Matters agreed journalists should explain the relationship between climate change and wildfires. But an analysis of recent coverage suggests mainstream media outlets are not up to the task — only 3 percent of news reports on wildfires in the West mentioned climate change.

News Outlets Avoid Topic Of Climate Change In Wildfire Stories

Only 3 Percent Of Wildfire Coverage Mentioned Long-Term Climate Change Or Global Warming. The major television and print outlets largely ignored climate change in their coverage of wildfires in Colorado, New Mexico and other Western states. All together, only 3 percent of the reports mentioned climate change, including 1.6 percent of television segments and 6 percent of text articles.

Climate Central: “Wildfires Require Several Factors To Come Together.” A Climate Central article about the 2011 fire season noted that “major wildfires require several factors to come together,” and that wildfires are strongly influenced by regional climate conditions, which in turn are influenced by global warming driven by greenhouse gas emissions:

As with most extreme weather and climate events, and their related impacts, major wildfires require several factors to come together in order [to] occur — typically some combination of dry and windy weather, abundant and dry vegetation, and a spark, which can range from a carelessly tossed cigarette to a lightning strike.

Wildfires are a naturally occurring phenomenon closely tied to climate conditions, and as the world warms in response to rising amounts of greenhouse gases in the air, many studies show that wildfire frequency and severity will likely shift as well.

Historical variations in climate can explain much of the large year-to-year and decade-to-decade variations in Western US fire activity. Thus, climate change is already increasing wildfire activity in the Western US. This may seem surprising, given the number of other factors (including forest management practices) that are known to affect fire activity. [Climate Central, 6/21/11]

Major Climate Report: “Wildfires in the United States Are Already Increasing Due To Warming.” In a comprehensive report commissioned by the Bush administration and released in June 2009, the U.S. Global Change Research Program said earlier snowmelt and drying of soils and plants have worsened wildfires in Western states:

Wildfires in the United States are already increasing due to warming. In the West, there has been a nearly fourfold increase in large wildfires in recent decades, with greater fire frequency, longer fire durations, and longer wildfire seasons. This increase is strongly associated with increased spring and summer temperatures and earlier spring snowmelt, which have caused drying of soils and vegetation. [U.S. Global Change Research Program, 6/16/09]

The report included the following chart showing that the number of acres burned per fire has increased significantly since the 1980s:

For the full report by Media Matters click here.

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