Typhoon Haiyan: Study Finds Media Rarely Covered Climate Change Context

Super Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines, sweeping the island nation with near-record winds and a towering storm surge. There are many scientific uncertainties around the factors contributing to storms such as Super Typhoon Haiyan, but scientists know that rising sea levels driven by manmade climate change worsen the damage caused by these storms. Yet an analysis of Typhoon Haiyan coverage in television and print media finds that less than five percent of stories mentioned climate change.

Media Coverage Of Super Typhoon Haiyan Largely Overlooked Climate Change

Less Than 5 Percent Of Typhoon Haiyan Coverage Mentioned Climate Change. Super Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines, sweeping the island nation with near-record winds and a towering storm surge. In the days that followed the storm, media relayed stories of intense suffering, but most coverage neglected to include a factor that contributed to the disaster in the Philippines and other places hit by extreme weather events: manmade climate change. Only about 4.6 percent of articles and segments about Typhoon Haiyan produced in the six days after the typhoon made landfall mentioned climate change. TV outlets were less likely to mention climate change in their coverage of Typhoon Haiyan (network news mentioned climate change in only 4 percent of coverage and cable in 3 percent) compared to print outlets (10 percent). 

Haiyan Coverage In TV And Print Media

ABC Mentioned Climate Change As Many Times As Fox News In Typhoon Coverage -- Zero Times. As a network television outlet, ABC News has far less air time to fill than Fox News with its 24-hour cable news cycle. However, both outlets share the unique distinction of not mentioning climate change in any of their news reporting compared to all other major network and cable outlets. Out of 11 stories on the disaster, ABC News did not once mention climate change. Fox News aired nearly six times as many stories and never mentioned climate change in them.

Within Its Massive Amount Of Typhoon Haiyan Coverage, CNN Gave Air Time To Cast Doubt On Climate Change. CNN aired far more coverage about the disaster than any other outlet in this study with 276 segments. By comparison, the MSNBC aired 67 segments and Fox News aired 64 segments. However, the outlet rarely connected the issue of manmade climate change to the typhoon. In fact, CNN's Piers Morgan Live hosted climatologist Roy Spencer, a self-described climate change “skeptic” whose work has prompted a scientific journal editor to resign after publishing a study by Spencer that he suggested pushed “false claims,” to “debate” Mark Hertsgaard, a journalist for The Nation. Hertsgaard rebuked Piers Morgan for hosting a debate that may have left viewers with a misleading picture of where the expertise on the issue lies, saying “journalistically this is malpractice to have on someone pretending that this is 50 percent and 50 percent” when 97 percent of scientists agree that the majority of recent warming is manmade. [CNN, Piers Morgan Live, 11/11/13] [Media Matters, 9/2/11] [Media Matters, 6/25/13

USA TODAY Entirely Ignored Climate Change In Typhoon Coverage. USA TODAY did not once mention climate change in its coverage of the typhoon. The Wall Street Journal even published an article that connected climate change to disasters such as Typhoon Haiyan. While the Los Angeles Times did not mention in print a connection between climate change and extreme weather during the time period of our study, the newspaper eventually did produce some climate coverage. [Wall Street Journal, 11/12/13] [Los Angeles Times, 11/15/13]

Haiyan Coverage By Outlet

Two-Thirds Of Coverage That Mentioned Climate Change Included Caveats About Link. Some claim that the problem with media coverage of climate change is not that the media too often overlooks the long-term changes happening to our climate, but rather that they exaggerate the links between climate change and extreme weather events. However, our study found that of the few reports that mentioned climate change when covering the storm, nearly 68 percent included a caveat such as “Scientists have cautioned against blaming individual storms such as Haiyan on climate change” or that it's a “hotly debated area in climate science.” Many of the other 32 percent of reports were quoting a U.N. delegate from the Philippines at a climate summit. [Economic Times, 12/19/11]

In Haiyan's Wake, Filipinos Stressing Need For Climate Action

Filipino U.N. Delegate Tearfully Called For Progress On Climate Change. Shortly after Super Typhoon Haiyan ravaged the Philippines, the United Nations (U.N.) Conference of the Parties convened in Warsaw for its 19th annual climate summit. Yeb Sano -- delegate from the Philippines -- urged governments to take action on climate change in the wake of Haiyan's devastation.

[YouTube, 11/11/13, via The Daily Conversation]

Philippines' National Youth Commission Fasting In Solidarity. In support of Sano, Philippines' National Youth Commission (NYC) joined his fast in solidarity:

Aside from being given a standing ovation, Sano was also supported by other government representatives and activists who expressed support for the causes and demands of the Philippine delegation. He is on fasting until a meaningful breakthrough in the climate talks is achieved.

“The world is watching and is anxiously awaiting the outcome of these talks. It is obvious that more and more people, more and more nations are bearing the brunt of climate change. As the recent victim of these extreme weather conditions caused by climate change, it is but proper for the Philippines, especially its young people, to support our Philippine delegation. We join them as we collectively fast and donate our foregone meals to reinforce our call for swift climate action and to commiserate with the victims of the recent super typhoon.” Undersecretary Leon Flores III, Chairman of the National Youth Commission (NYC) stressed. [Philippine Information Agency, 11/18/13]

Typhoon's Extreme Damage Exacerbated By Climate Change

Many Uncertainties Remain About The Role Of Manmade Global Warming On Cyclones. Many scientists are hesitant to make a definitive connection between climate change and individual cyclones (both hurricanes and typhoons are types of tropical cyclones; hurricanes form over the North Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and Gulf of Mexico, typhoons form over the Indian or western Pacific Ocean). The latest climate assessment from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) explained the factors that lead to low confidence in the connection:

Individual model projections of regional storm track changes are often comparable with the magnitude of interannual natural variability and so the changes are expected to be relevant for regional climate. However, the magnitude of the response is model-dependent at any given location, especially over land (Harvey et al., 2012). There is also disagreement between different cyclone/storm track identification methods, even when applied to the same data.


The influence of past and future climate change on tropical cyclones is likely to vary by region, but the specific characteristics of the changes are not yet well understood, and the substantial influence of ENSO and other known climate modes on global and regional tropical cyclone activity emphasizes the need for more reliable assessments of future changes in the characteristics of these modes.  [IPCC, September 2013]

However, Sea Level Rise Driven In Part By Climate Change Unequivocally Worsened Impact Of Storm. Climate Central reported that sea level has risen, driven in part by manmade climate change, and that even small increases in sea level can lead to dramatic increases in storm surge from storms such as Typhoon Haiyan, which delivered unanticipated storm surges of 20 feet according to the Associated Press. From Climate Central:

Storm surges are natural events that have historically been tropical cyclone's biggest killers. However, there is increasing evidence that manmade global warming is making the impacts of storm surges worse by raising the sea levels that they build up on top of.

The most recent report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that during the 1901-2010 period, global averaged sea level rise was 0.07 inches per year, which accelerated to .13 inches per year between 1993 and 2010. The IPCC's four scenarios of the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere through 2100 all show faster rates of sea level rise compared to that observed during 1971-2010. The new report projected that global mean sea level rise for 2081-2100 will likely be in the range of 10.2 to 32 inches, depending on greenhouse gas emissions and the rate of melting of polar ice sheets. The scenario with the highest amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere showed a mean sea level rise range between 21 and 38.2 inches, which would be devastating for many highly populated coastal cities at or near current sea levels.

The IPCC report found that as sea level increases, the chances of extreme sea level events, such as inundation due to storm surges from typhoons and other storms, increases sharply. 

Global Mean Sea Level Rise


Research done by Climate Central scientists has also shown that even relatively small increases in sea level can dramatically escalate the risks of storm surge-related flooding in the U.S. For example, the 1-foot rise in sea level in Lower Manhattan during the past century resulted in greater coastal flooding than would otherwise have occurred when Hurricane Sandy struck in2012.

Sea level is rising at different rates in various regions of the world, with particularly rapid rises observed in the Western Pacific, including in the Philippines. In fact, the West Pacific has been a hotspot of sea level rise in recent years, but that may be at least partly related to natural climate variability that has favored warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the Western Pacific, while the eastern Pacific has remained generally cooler than average. [Climate Central, 11/11/13]  [Associated Press, 11/11/13

IPCC: “Most Intense Cyclones” -- With Largest Impact On Society -- Are Projected To Increase Substantially. The United Nations' climate change assessment found that models “consistently project” that warming from greenhouse gas emissions will result stronger -- but fewer -- tropical cyclones, with increased maximum wind speed and precipitation rates. The report also projects an increased frequency of “the most intense cyclones” due to global warming, which it labelled “more important to physical and societal impacts than overall frequency or mean intensity”:

The assessment provided by Knutson et al. (2010) of projections based on the SRES A1B scenario concluded that it is likely that the global frequency of tropical cyclones will either decrease or remain essentially unchanged while mean intensity (as measured by maximum wind speed) increases by +2 to +11% and tropical cyclone rainfall rates increase by about 20% within 100 km of the cyclone centre. However, inter-model differences in regional projections lead to lower confidence in basin-specific projections, and confidence is particularly low for projections of frequency within individual basins. For example, a recent assessment by Ying et al. (2012) showed that numerical projections of 21st century changes in tropical cyclone frequency in the western North Pacific range broadly from -70% to +60%, while there is better model agreement in measures of mean intensity and precipitation, which are projected to change in the region by -3% to +18% and +5% to +30%, respectively. The available modelling studies that are capable of producing very strong cyclones typically project substantial increases in the frequency of the most intense cyclones and it is more likely than not that this increase will be larger than 10% in some basins (Emanuel et al., 2008; Bender et al., 2010; Knutson et al., 2010; Yamada et al., 2010; Murakami et al., 2012; Knutson et al., 2013). It should be emphasized that this metric is generally more important to physical and societal impacts than overall frequency or mean intensity.


While projections under 21st century greenhouse warming indicate that it is likely that the global frequency of tropical cyclones will either decrease or remain essentially unchanged, concurrent with a likely increase in both global mean tropical cyclone maximum wind speed and rainfall rates, there is lower confidence in region-specific projections of frequency and intensity. [IPCC, September 2013, emphasis added]

Climate Desk Analysis: Many Regions Have Experienced “Some Type Of New Hurricane Intensity Record” Since 2000. Chris Mooney of Climate Desk found in an analysis that many regions of the world have experienced record-breaking cyclones since 2000, a trend that may be related to climate change:

Haiyan isn't the globe's only record-breaking hurricane in recent years. Even as scientists continue to study and debate whether global warming is making hurricanes worse, hurricanes have continued to set new intensity records. Indeed, a Climate Desk analysis of official hurricane records finds that many of the globe's hurricane basins--including the Atlantic, the Northwest Pacific, the North Indian, the South Indian, and the South Pacific--have witnessed (or, in the case of Haiyan and the Northwest Pacific, arguably witnessed) some type of new hurricane intensity record since the year 2000. What's more, a few regions that aren't usually considered major hurricane basis have also seen mammoth storms of late.

At the outset, we need an important caveat. Due to a number of well-known problems with our hurricane data--including discrepancies in how different meteorological agencies estimate storm strength, as well as major technological changes over time in how storms are measured--we can't simply leap to the conclusion that global warming is behind these records.


And yet at the same time, one recent scientific paper that explicitly controlled for these changing measurement systems found a global shift towards more category 4 and 5 storms, and fewer Category 1s and 2s, a trend correlated with climate change. [Mother Jones, 11/18/13]

Super Typhoon Haiyan Was Among World's Strongest Tropical Storms. The Weather Channel's hurricane specialist told NBC News that Haiyan was “at the top end of any tropical system that we've seen on our planet”:

Based on satellite imagery, the U.S. military's Joint Typhoon Warning Center estimated that Haiyan's winds reached a sustained peak as high as 195 mph shortly before it made landfall, with gusts rising to 235 mph. Estimates from Philippine weather officials were lower, suggesting that the storm packed sustained winds of 147 mph and gusts of 170 mph when it hit land. Either way, the typhoon ranks among the world's strongest tropical storms and appears to have been more powerful than Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

If the higher estimates are correct, the warning center said Haiyan's maximum strength would exceed that of its previous record-holder: Hurricane Camille, which hit the northern Gulf Coast in 1969 with sustained winds of 190 mph.

“This is at the top end of any tropical system that we've seen on our planet,” said Bryan Norcross, The Weather Channel's hurricane specialist. [NBC News, 11/11/13]

Science Of Hurricane Formation Suggests That Warming Oceans Fuel Stronger Storms. At the time of the storm, waters east of the Philippines were approximately 0.5°C to 1°C (0.9°F to 1.8°F)above average according to data compiled from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which may have contributed to Haiyan's severity. As LiveScience explained, warmer oceans tend to increase storm intensity:

Hurricanes feed off warm ocean water. In the ocean's hurricane nurseries, heat rising from the ocean turns into water vapor. As the vapor rises and cools, it condenses into rain. This releases heat, which helps strengthen circulating tropical cyclones. Warmer oceans mean more water vapor, and more intense storms. [LiveScience, 7/8/13] [Sydney Morning Herald, 11/11/2013]

METHODOLOGY: We searched Nexis and Factiva for articles and transcripts (“typhoon” or “Haiyan” or Yolanda") and Snapstream for television segments (“typhoon”) between November 6, 2013 and November 12, 2013. News outlets in this study included ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Associated Press and Reuters. We analyzed a total of 611 articles or segments and excluded news headlines or news briefs from this study.