Media and climate change: Spikes in temperature went unexplained, unexplored

JEERS TO the broadcast news media for their limited reporting on the extreme heat experienced in the country during the last few weeks of the dry season. As a result, they missed an opportunity to explore the impact on the population of what other countries considered a “heat wave,” and to educate the public about the climate crisis.

What’s the Story?

The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) announced the start of the warm and dry season in the country on March 21, 2023. However, even prior to the formal beginning of the season, temperatures were already rising such as on March 17, 2023 when a heat index of 46°C was logged in San Jose, Occidental Mindoro. 

Temperatures rose to as high as over 50°C, causing an increase in heat-related illnesses, schools to shift to online classes, power rates to rise, vaccination drives to slow down, and made water service interruptions even harder to bear for affected citizens.

Pagasa’s latest data showed that from March 1 to May 31 of this year, the highest heat index recorded in the country stood at 53°C on May 24 again in San Jose, Occidental Mindoro. Similar scorching temperatures were felt all around the archipelago. In Metro Manila, the heat index spiked to “dangerous levels” for five consecutive days, ranging from 42°C to 51°C between May 11 and May 15.

Despite these elevated temperatures, Pagasa did not identify the phenomenon as a heat wave, even though news organizations in neighboring countries reported heat waves as well as high temperatures. Media also noted that the government was preparing for the onset of the predicted El Niño phenomenon

According to Pagasa’s definition, the heat index is the temperature felt by the human body rather than the actual air temperature.

What the Reports Lacked

The state weather bureau’s daily heat index records and five-day weather forecasts featured prominently in reports, but not much else. The reporting, by and large, failed to give an overall picture of what may have caused the heat and its relationship with climate change and the seemingly erratic weather behaviors in other regions.

Not enough local weather reports picked up on the consistently rising heat index as a continuing phenomenon we share with our regional neighbors. Without the addition of the greater context and nuances of rising temperatures as a global effect of climate change, the reports – particularly by the broadcast networks — failed to convey the depth and seriousness of the situation, what lessons could be learned, and how citizens and the government could mitigate its impact.

Media issued explainers to aid public understanding of the heat index and how to prevent heat stroke. While useful, the information provided in these explainers, mostly through online reports, could not substitute for a more comprehensive overview of the situation that should have been evident in the newscasts’ weather reports.

What Could Have Been Done?

While the climate change beat continues to pose a challenge, Filipino journalists should not leave climate change reportage to the foreign press. There is too much at stake and the stories of Filipinos on the ground who face the realities of climate change-related events deserve to be told. One notable example is the two-part special report from Cebu Daily News discussing El Niño and documenting the experiences of farmers in Cebu as they find ways to cope with the heat’s effect on their livelihoods.

Indeed, the news media need not look far. To shed light on how communities – particularly the poor — were affected by the weather conditions, they could have reported on the plight of Filipinos living in cramped urban areas, for example, using the reports of rising heat as a hook. Interviews with residents and photo and video documentation of the communities could be effective ways to tell the story. It is a good way to bring home the message of climate change and humanize those who suffer from it.

Of course, a little research could have gone a long way. Keeping in mind the warning by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) that global temperatures are set to reach new record-breaking highs in the next five years, journalists need to be more innovative and enterprising in contextualizing weather and climate change reports.

Some resources for improving climate change reports can be found from UNESCO, Covering Climate Now, World Weather Attribution, and the Oxford Climate Journalism Network. There are also local experts, among them the current environment secretary who used to be with the Manila Observatory, on the climate crisis who would have been happy to talk on the record.

Why Is this Important?

Timely yet substantial reporting on prevailing weather conditions and future weather patterns is essential for the public. Extreme weather events will continue to occur as climate change progresses and these should be reported not as isolated events, but as part of the bigger picture of the ongoing climate crisis

In its May 17 report, the WMO warned that between 2023 to 2027, the world is 66 percent likely to breach the dangerous 1.5°C increase in global temperature. Scientists have stressed that the predicted 1.5°C increase is a critical indicator signaling the runaway acceleration of climate change and worsening of its effects. 

Clearly, the public needs to be prepared for what is coming, especially since the Philippines has been identified as extremely vulnerable to the impact of climate change because more than half of its population is in the urban areas, which are in turn near the coasts.