Despite the proliferation of numerous sources of information on climate change, news media are still central to how individuals, organizations, and societies understand, evaluate, and act upon it (Metag et al. 2017). Online survey data from 40 countries, including the four countries in this study, show that in 2020, news media were the most widely used sources of information on climate change, and that online sites of major news organizations were the second most popular platform after television (Amdi 2020). For the news media, extreme weather events such as heatwaves, floods, droughts, and storms present a particular case for journalists to report about: first, such stories are of national and international relevance to warn the public of acute dangers and the impacts on infrastructure and society at large, and second, because these events also raise the opportunity for journalists to link the extreme weather events to the science of climate change, and in this case extreme event attribution (EEA) studies.
However, media treatments of extreme weather events in European countries have rarely been studied (Painter and Hassol 2020), and cross-country studies of a single event are generally lacking. Indeed, in general, there has been relatively little scholarship about the media coverage of specific extreme weather events across the world. Surveys of the literature (Hopke 2019; Painter and Hassol 2020) show that the research has tended to focus on volume of coverage, or issue attention. Several studies (e.g., Cordner and Schwartz 2019; Burgess et al. 2020; Weiner et al. 2021) have concluded that the links between extreme weather events and climate change are underreported. This study fills this research gap by studying the reporting of the 2019 heatwaves in Europe. Similar to previous heatwaves, these received extensive coverage in European media, and particularly in the four countries where the heatwaves were most acute: France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK.
2019 was the warmest year on record in Europe.Footnote 1 During a series of heatwaves in June and July, a number of record-breaking temperatures were set. In France, an all-time high temperature of 46 °C was reached, parts of Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands also registered new highs, and in the UK, a new all-time high of 38.7 °C was recorded in Cambridge in July (Vautard et al. 2020). In many parts of the continent, the weather was 3 to 4 °C warmer than average, and the number of sunshine hours was the highest on record (Copernicus 2020). According to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, the European summer heatwave was the deadliest extreme event in 2019 anywhere in the world with a total of approximately 2500 deaths in France, the Netherlands, the UK, and Belgium (measured by excess mortality) (Froment and Below 2020). This figure represented more deaths than those resulting from the floods in India and cyclone Idai affecting Mozambique and Zimbabwe that year (ibid.).Footnote 2
EEA studies assess if, and by how much, specific extreme weather events have become more or less likely, or more or less intense. Such studies about the 2019 European heatwaves established that they became several times more likely and more intense due to anthropogenic climate change (van Oldenborgh et al. 2019, Vautard et al. 2020, Ma et al. 2020). Two preliminary studies carried out by the multinational umbrella science organization World Weather Attribution (WWA) were published in “near-real-time” (see Table 1), which makes the 2019 summer heatwaves a fertile case study to examine how the media reported the link at the time the events were taking place.
Although EEA can link specific extreme events to climate change to an unprecedented degree (Betts 2021), there are many different ways of defining the event and describing its results, including an array of different phrases and word choices. The choice of phrasing is important not just for scientific accuracy, but also because recent focus group research has found that different approaches to communicating EEA, including the use of different words and visualizations, can evoke distinct reactions among members of the public (Ettinger et al. 2021).
This study offers a detailed focus on a 3-month period of coverage of heatwaves in four countries during which two EEA studies were published. In this way, we add to our understanding of firstly, the different ways journalists depicted the links between climate change and heatwaves, the EEA studies they quote over time, and the sources they turn to, and secondly, the differences and similarities between journalistic practices in different countries and different types of media outlet (public broadcasters, and right- and left-leaning commercial outlets).
EEA studies and the role of climate change in heatwaves
The extent to which greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have played a role in the occurrence of extreme weather events is of growing interest to scientists, the media, politicians, environmental activists, and wider civil society. By early 2021, more than 350 peer-reviewed EEA studies had been published (Carbon Brief 2021). This research has provided mounting evidence that human activity is raising the risk of some types of extreme weather, especially those linked to heat.
However, the calculation of the influence of climate change on extreme weather events such as heatwaves is complex and at times uncertain, as it is contingent on how climate scientists define the event according to the interplay of natural fluctuations, and local and atmospheric conditions. In recent years, the science community has been making substantial advances in better understanding the links between climate change and specific extreme weather events. Different approaches, or combinations of approaches, are used by EEA scientists to establish the presence or absence of any link (Herring et al. 2016). They usually rely on some combination of observational weather data and computer modelling simulations to assess the difference in the likelihood or intensity of events with or without anthropogenic factors (ibid.). An assessment is then made of various possibilities: (i) the event was made more likely or severe as a result of anthropogenic climate change; (ii) the event was made less likely or severe; (iii) there was no discernible difference; or (iv) there was insufficient data to make a judgement.
Often the results are expressed as a change in the “return period” or “return time” of an event, that is, how often the event of this type might be expected to occur. For example, in our case study, researchers found that the heatwaves in the UK and Germany would have had a return time of a few tens to a few hundreds of years without climate change, but climate change caused this event to now have a return period of around 10–30 years. So the likelihood of such an event was made about 10 times higher (and at least 3 times in France and the Netherlands) due to climate change (Vautard et al. 2019).
Research published in early 2021 (Carbon Brief 2021) found that of the 132 attribution studies that have looked at extreme heat events, 92% concluded that climate change made the event or trend more likely or more severe. This compares, for example, with rainfall or flooding events, where a smaller portion (58%) found human activity had made the event more likely or more severe. No studies have found that a heatwave had been made less severe by climate change, while two studies (2%) identified no influence and a further eight (6%) were inconclusive. A similar survey of 36 studies of 32 heatwaves starting in 2015 showed that anthropogenic influence increased the likelihood or strength of each event (Watts et al. 2021).
According to the World Weather Attribution (WWA) initiative, every heatwave analyzed in Europe in recent years has been found to be made much more likely and more intense due to anthropogenic climate change. The Stott et al. (2004) study of the 2003 heatwave in several European countries paved the way. The authors calculated that it was very likely that human influence had at least doubled the risk of the heatwave, which resulted in an estimated 70,000 excess deaths that summer. Since then, attribution studies have been applied to heatwaves in different regions of Europe in 2010 (Otto et al. 2012), 2015 (Sippel et al. 2016), 2017 (Kew et al. 2018), and 2018 (Leach et al. 2020). The studies show variations across time in how much the specific heatwaves were made more intense and/or more likely as a result of climate change, which depended strongly on how the event was defined in terms of location, season, intensity, and duration.
The 2019 European heatwaves
The two main 2019 heatwaves in Europe took place in June and July, and varied in time span, geographies, and intensity. The June event lasted longer, whereas the July one was shorter and more intense, with about 4 days of very high temperatures, and was accompanied by severe drought conditions in some areas, particularly in parts of France (Vautard et al. 2020). The immediate cause of the heatwaves was similar—a ridge of high pressure across Western Europe combined with a low-pressure system off the Iberian Peninsula. This weather pattern forced an intense transfer of hot air from Northwestern Africa across Spain to France, and then Germany and the Benelux countries (ibid.).
Details of the impacts of the heatwaves and the government responses to them are broken down by country and summarized in the Supplementary Material. France suffered the highest official death toll due to the heatwaves (1435), followed by the UK (900), and the Netherlands (400). The effects of extreme temperatures were far-reaching: “from delayed trains and sleepless nights, to deaths from drowning and an increased mortality risk for the elderly, babies and vulnerable populations.”Footnote 3
Table 1 summarizes the four event attribution studies of the summer heatwaves which were published between July 2019 and August 2020. The two WWA studies were published in “near-real-time” (namely 2 July and 2 August 2019), and received widespread media coverage (see Section 3.3 below).
The WWA researchers emphasized that although they had high confidence in the increased likelihood of the heatwaves, there were a number of uncertainties and limitations. For example, in the case of the WWA study of France of 2 July 2019, the researchers said it was difficult to assign a specific number to the size of the increased likelihood due to the differences between the representation of the heatwaves in the observational data and the climate models. Also, the temperature data record used in the analysis was relatively short, running from 1947 to 2019, which meant it was more likely to contain some uncertainties (Carbon Brief 2019).
In other studies of the media coverage of extreme weather events (e.g., a heatwave and extreme rainfall event in India in 2015—Painter et al. 2020; or the Californian drought—Osaka et al. 2020), EEA studies had produced different results about the role of climate change. However, in the case of the European heatwave, all the studies showed that anthropogenic climate change made it more likely or more intense.
Country differences in media coverage
Comparative media research has long identified, and debated, the key characteristics of different media systems in Western Europe. In their classic study, Hallin and Mancini (2004) saw evidence for Germany and the Netherlands belonging to the “democratic-corporatist” model, whereas France approximated more to the “polarized pluralist” model, and the UK to the North American or “liberal” model. In all four countries, public and commercial broadcasters continue to fare reasonably well in terms of audience reach (Newman et al. 2020), but there are important differences in the extent to which they have prioritized their online news offers with the BBC faring better than their counterparts in France, Germany, and other European countries (Sehl et al. 2016). Likewise, newspaper companies across Europe struggle to attract readerships for their print offer (Nicholls et al. 2018), but some (like the Guardian) have adapted much better to the digital landscape than others by prioritizing their online content (Küng 2016).
A variety of factors at different levels, such as macro trends in media business models, meso-level developments within media organizations, and at the micro-level changing attitudes of individual journalists, continue to shape the way climate change is covered by different media organizations (Schäfer and Painter 2021). Major differences continue to persist between countries, including the volume of coverage, the amount of attention given to skeptics, and the emphasis on different themes or frames (Painter and Schäfer 2018). Some of these differences are found between “Anglosphere” countries like the UK and continental European countries. For example, studies have shown that in Europe, the UK tends to cover climate change the most (partly due to its contestation in the public sphere), followed by relatively high coverage in France, and less in Germany and the Netherlands (Schmidt et al. 2013). The “exceptionalism” of the UK compared to other European countries has been supported by other studies, particularly in the higher proportion of editorial space given to climate skeptics and scientific uncertainty (Brossard et al. 2004; Dirikx and Gelders 2009; Engels et al. 2013; Painter and Gavin, 2015).
Several studies suggest ideological differences between media organizations are a significant driver of different treatments of climate change (see Painter 2016 for overview). In the UK, left-leaning papers such as the Guardian are strongly supportive of mainstream climate science in their news articles, whereas right-leaning newspapers such as the Mail and the Express have been strongly dismissive of them. In their study of the Dutch and French press, Dirikx and Gelders (2010) found that in the Netherlands, newspaper ideology was not related to climate change coverage, but in France, it was related to the tone of the coverage and the need to take action. The difference, they said, was that in France (and the UK), climate change was subject to political division in a highly competitive media landscape, where ideologies are used as a form of “product differentiation.” Research has also found notable differences between left-leaning and right-leaning media outlets as regards the volume of coverage of climate change (Kristiansen et al. 2020), and the coverage of adaptation to heatwaves (Jiménez-Gómez and Martín-Sosa-Rodríguez 2021).
Extreme weather in the media
As mentioned above, research has shown that the links between climate change and extreme weather events have generally not been reported sufficiently or accurately. However, Hopke (2019) found that there are clear exceptions to this general finding for some English-language media titles like the Guardian, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the BBC. She argues that this was in part due to these media organizations’ investment in environmental journalism by having dedicated environmental and/or climate reporters and editors. Indeed, the Guardian prides itself on its detailed, science-based climate coverage based on its well-resourced environment section. It offers frequent self-reflection on its coverage, often publishing statements about its editorial policy on the issue, and even initiated a campaign in 2015 focused on getting two charitable organizations to withdraw investments from fossil fuel companies (Painter 2011; Kristiansen et al. 2020; Schäfer and Painter 2021).
Most of the studies have not examined the different ways the link between climate change and specific weather events are described, or the role that EEA studies have played in the coverage. The exceptions include Painter et al. (2020), who found that in India, politicians and NGOs often “blamed” climate change without reference to the science, and that EEA studies were rarely mentioned in the media. In contrast, Osaka et al. (2020) concluded that local and national media in the USA did cover the link between climate change and the Californian droughts in 2014–2015, but that the different EEA studies available led to the presence of a frame of scientific uncertainty or disagreement in the coverage.
Very few studies have focused solely on an extreme weather event in Europe, with one exception being the wildfires in Greece in 2007 (Hovardas 2014). Jiménez-Gómez and Martín-Sosa-Rodríguez (2021) looked at the coverage of European cities’ adaptation to heatwaves over a 2-year period from 2017 to 2019 in several newspapers in five countries. They concluded that the country where the article was published was the most decisive variable in the rigor and depth of the journalistic coverage, followed by ideological orientation. The authors found that the media in France, regardless of type or editorial line, had the most comprehensive approach, and that French authorities and institutions regularly linked the heatwaves to climate change.
A different research question was addressed in work by Pianta and Sisco (2020), who looked at online news coverage of hot temperatures in the (then) 28 countries of European Union from 2014 to 2019. They focused on the drivers of volume coverage and a possible correlation between positive deviations from short-term average temperatures as distinct to baseline periods used by climatologists. Based on a time-series analysis of 1.7 million articles, the authors argued that temperatures warmer with respect to recent years increase the attention that the media devote to climate change coverage, which may be due to this being interpreted as evidence of climate change. However, other possible drivers of fluctuations of volume (e.g., UN summits, science reports) are not included in their analysis.
Criticism of media coverage
Mainstream media have often been criticized for their coverage of extreme weather events. This has centered on journalists being slow to make the link between climate change and the event (Painter and Hassol 2020) or in some countries not making it at all (Hopke 2019); not fully explaining scientific disagreement or uncertainty over EEA studies (Osaka et al. 2020); presenting news and weather reports that portray (in text and images) long, hot, dry spells as overwhelmingly positive (e.g., O’Neill 2019); or quoting NGOs and politicians on the link without sufficient scrutiny of their accuracy (Painter et al. 2020).
In similar ways to this general criticism, some NGOs and experts in the UK pointed to the relative absence of climate change in the reporting of the 2019 summer heatwaves, the insufficient mention of the negative impacts of heatwaves, and the generally positive tone of the coverage, both in the text and visually.Footnote 4 In the Netherlands, some commentators criticized reporters for paying more attention to whether the heatwave would break records, rather than its link to climate change.Footnote 5 In contrast in France, some commentators questioned whether the media were paying too much attention to the heatwave and creating an almost automatic link to climate change, and thereby more anxiety among the population.Footnote 6
In the UK, the Met Office and the BBC were also subject to some criticism for not being proactive enough in making the link between the weather and climate change. One academic argued it was important that weather forecasters gave overviews of temperature trends to help viewers “to make sense of their own experiences and allow them to think about how risks will change.”Footnote 7 The same expert has advocated that heatwaves are becoming so deadly (and far more people in the UK have died from recent heatwaves than from storms) that they should be given names, like storms, so that the public takes them more seriously.Footnote 8 Another academic pointed out that text or headlines highlighting the downsides of 2019 heatwaves were often accompanied by positive images of holiday makers enjoying a good time on the beach, or people playing in fountains, before, during, and after the record-breaking August Bank Holiday (O’Neill 2019).
Bearing in mind the above discussion, we can see that although the media play a central role in giving the public information about extreme weather events, few studies have concentrated on the way they present the science behind the link with climate change, and on the differences in coverage between countries and media outlets with contrasting political leanings. As a result, our principal and secondary research questions were formulated as follows:
How often was a link between the 2019 heatwave and anthropogenic climate change included in the coverage?
What were the different ways that journalists describe the link, and what was their relative presence?
What was the volume of coverage over time where a mention of attribution studies was included?
Which sectors (scientists, politicians, NGOs) were quoted in the coverage about the link between the weather events and climate change, and were they supportive of the link, or questioned it?
What were the main differences between countries in the content of the coverage?
Was there a marked difference between left-leaning and right-leaning publications?
Was scientific uncertainty represented, and if so, how?
How often was there mention of any possible solution(s) or policy options, i.e., anything relating to either individual or collective actions to avoid or reduce the chances/impacts of such scenarios (heatwaves) in the future?