The Media’s Climate Fearmongering Doesn’t Help Anyone

by Vijay Jayaraj

In an era of sensationalism and clickbait headlines, the media’s portrayal of hot weather adopts an apocalyptic tone. Each scorching summer is touted as further evidence of an impending climate catastrophe with little room for nuance or objective analysis.

However, lost in the hyperbole is the inconvenient truth that cold weather poses a far greater threat to human life than heat waves.

Human Body and Temperature

Contrary to popular media that make a bogeyman of warmth, humans possess physiological protections and have made behavioral adaptations that enable them to withstand and even thrive in warm weather.

Our bodies are equipped with efficient cooling mechanisms, such as sweating, which help regulate body temperature and prevent overheating.  Additionally, humans have the ability to seek shelter from the sun and to hydrate to mitigate the effects of heat. In warm climates, societies have developed cultural practices and infrastructure to cope with high temperatures. Siestas, shaded outdoor spaces and cooling systems are examples.

In comparison, cold weather presents a more insidious and often overlooked threat. When temperatures plummet, the human body faces numerous challenges in maintaining its core temperature. Prolonged exposure to cold weather can lead to hypothermia, frostbite and other health complications.

Hypothermia occurs when the body’s core temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Frostbite is where the skin and underlying tissues freeze. Heart attacks are more common in cold weather because the organ has to work harder to pump blood.

The risks escalate in regions where infrastructure and societal adaptations to extreme cold are lacking. Inadequate heating systems, insufficient clothing, and limited access to warm shelters contribute to heightened vulnerability during cold spells.

Cold is a bigger killer than heat even in a tropical country like India, where summer temperatures can easily cross 104 degrees Fahrenheit every year. According to scientific studies, extreme temperature accounts for 6.5% of all deaths in India. Of that amount, 88% are caused by cold weather and only 12% by hot weather.

Researchers at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology say the reality of bigger risk from cold is “at odds with warnings and mitigating measures authorities have been taking in anticipation of climate change.”

Despite the overwhelming evidence of cold weather’s dangers, they often go unnoticed. Selective media coverage that tends to focus more on heat than cold perpetuates a distorted understanding of climate-related risks and hinders public discourse on comprehensive strategies to mitigate the dangers of frigid weather.

Manipulating People’s Minds

In addition, the media ignore or distort historical long-term trends that show the warmth of our current climate is neither unusual nor unprecedented.

For instance, we know that heat waves have become less frequent, shorter and less intense in the U.S. over the past 90 years. On June 27, 1915, Alaska registered a temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit at its Fort Yukon station. This year, it was just 66 degrees Fahrenheit.

In 1936, 8 states in the U.S. recorded temperatures over 120 degrees Fahrenheit, making that year’s July and August one of the hottest. Around 80 percent of U.S. states have their maximum temperature recorded prior to 1960. Across the pond, the UK registered monster heat waves in 1808.

Looking back even further, we know that Vikings grew barley on Greenland 1,000 years ago and that Romans cultivated citrus 2,000 years ago in northern England, neither of which is possible today.

In his book “Apocalypse Never,” Michael Shellenberger says, “The news media … deserves blame for having misrepresented climate change and other environmental problems as apocalyptic and for having failed to put them in their global, historical, and economic context.”

The media’s choice to misinform people about both historical data and the relative risks of heat and cold reveals a motive to promote climate fear.

This commentary was first published at The Hill, August 1, 2023.

Vijay Jayaraj is a Research Associate at the CO2 Coalition, Arlington, Virginia. He holds a master’s degree in environmental sciences from the University of East Anglia, UK and resides in India.


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