Beyoncé called for charity while images of recent climate catastrophes flickered by – Harvey, Irma…Mexico. Twitter quickly rattled against “celebrity pseudo-science”. How far could the climate hoax go? Earthquakes are some of the few remaining environmental events that do not appear related to human impact. Recent studies suggest that even tectonic movement might be altered by climate change in specific areas. In the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in Mexico, Newsweek published “The Weird Way that Climate Change Could Make Earthquakes Worse”. The piece highlights some specific conditions under which climate adaptation could indirectly trigger earthquakes. If a community fears its upstream water source will dry up or entirely melt, it may invest in more dams and reservoirs. Rapid filling and refilling of a reservoir could lubricate fault lines and add pressure to cracks in the earth. Like many factors, these changes could push a tense fault toward a critical state. Is “Dam–Induced Seismicity”(DIS) an issue of correlation but not causation?
The Newsweek piece presents a contested issue so the criteria for credibility cannot be absolute either. Instead, it can be judged for framing. The more the piece presents the prospect of climate-triggered earthquakes as an intriguing possibility for future research, the more credible it is. If it attempts to steer this debate toward the affirmative in order to capitalize on a recent catastrophe, it is less credible. Responsible journalism emphasizes both sides of a contentious issue.
Right off the bat, the title of the article is misleading. The wording, “could make” does not immediately imply uncertainty. Instead, it comes across as a prediction. The concise article spends its first section describing the specific prospect of adaptation causing disaster but the anecdote is confusing. A reservoir is useful to stabilize volatile water supply with a stock. In framing the issue around an adaptation oversight, the piece does not explore the obvious question of the impact of hydropower dams. The article also inappropriately frames the climate/earthquake connection around the recent earthquake in Mexico although most observed DIS have been considerably smaller (McCully). In total, the content of this piece sensationalizes a complicated debate. But is the source ultimately credible?
Newsweek has historically courted sensationalism over serious discussion when it comes to climate change. Recently, it received criticism for publishing an opinion piece from a climate denier at the Cato Institute (Cousins). In previous climate coverage, Newsweek focused on the aesthetic losses of beautiful islands to appeal to wealthy consumers. In 2014, the magazine was accused of hypocrisy when it published a “travel guide” to these places, encouraging readers to purchase highly consumptive trips (Barasi). In the history of climate discourse, Newsweek has the unfortunate reputation of publishing an article on “global cooling” in 1975, widely cited by climate deniers since (Struck). Thirty-one years later, Newsweek openly rescinded this stance (Media Research Center). Newsweek also faced criticism from climate progressives for its ties with the oil industry. In 2009, the magazine co-hosted a forum on energy policy with the American Petroleum Institute, a major lobbying group. Later, Newsweek’s science editor wrote an article accused of green-washing big oil companies (O’Grady). Through the late 2000s, the magazine gradually declined in readership and eventually suspended its print edition. Collaboration with the fossil fuel industry could have been part of the financial hardship (Dooley). In a period of media saturation, it appears Newsweek has swung toward the sensational. One of its covers featured the phrase “Global Warming is a Hoax” in large letters before disclaiming this statement with an asterisk.
Climate change should not be discussed in hyperbole. Nor should its connections with other systems be extrapolated too far. Such behavior invites criticism from deniers. It also blurs attention to serious issues. At some point, readers will turn away from seriously considered climate interconnections. The article touches on a much more serious issue – structural damage to dams from earthquakes. Similarly, it mentions the catastrophic downstream impacts of major environmental restructuring. The piece could have used the opportunity to overview ways in which the presence of dams heightens climate risks. Instead, the Newsweek article on earthquakes and climate change is factually correct, but its framing is sensational and reductionist.