Reporters Link TV Watching to Obesity. Why Not Climate Change to Extreme Weather?

Cats shouldn't watch too much TV, either (via Flickr's kim & amy)

Earlier this week, I talked about how few reporters are connecting Western wildfires to global warming despite overwhelming scientific evidence. But do other fields of research treat connections so gingerly?

Global warming is loading the dice for extreme weather events. Here’s how Dr. Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, puts it:

Given that global warming is “unequivocal”, and is “very likely” due to human activities to quote the 2007 IPCC report, the null hypothesis should now be reversed, thereby placing the burden of proof on showing that there is no human influence.

So we frequently hear that “while this event is consistent with what we expect from climate change, no single event can be attributed to human induced global warming”. Such murky statements should be abolished. On the contrary, the odds have changed to make certain kinds of events more likely.

But Dr. Trenberth has been quoted on the connection between climate change and wildfires just once in the last week, by the New York Times‘ John Broder. Instead, reporters continue craving those murky statements. “Can we attribute it to one thing? I don’t think so,” quoted a Greenwire report. “It would be irresponsible to say that,” quoted USA Today‘s story.

So how reporters treat similar connections in other areas? Does murkiness rule? A new study tying extended television watching with a range of serious heath problems gives us a chance to find out.

Would CNN’s report start with a warning that it would be irresponsible to connect any one death to television watching? Completely the opposite:

The connection between TV and disease isn’t a mystery. TV watching eats up leisure time that could be spent walking, exercising, or even just moving around, and it has also been linked to unhealthy diets, including consuming too much sugar, soda, processed food, and snacks — foods, perhaps not coincidentally, that are often found in television commercials.

What’s more, some studies suggest that prolonged sitting, over and above its impact on eating habits and exercise, may cause metabolism changes that contribute to unhealthy cholesterol levels and obesity.

“This is really the couch-potato syndrome,” Hu says. “These are extremely sedentary people who spend several hours on a couch watching TV. They’re very passive and their energy expenditure is very low, even compared to other sedentary behaviors like sitting and reading, or sitting while driving.”

Those threats are one of the big reasons the National Wildlife Federation launched the Be Out There movement to reconnect kids with nature.

Now here’s the key for the climate conversation. Of course you won’t be reading any obituaries saying, “John Doe died at the age of 78 after a long battle with TV watching.” But just because it’s not literally the cause of death doesn’t mean there isn’t a massive connection:

Extrapolating their findings to the entire U.S. population, the researchers estimate that for every two hours Americans spend watching TV each day, there are 176 new cases of diabetes, 38 additional deaths from heart disease, and 104 additional deaths due to any cause per 100,000 people per year.

Individual physicians may not see a dramatic rise in illness and death as a result of excessive TV watching, but the cumulative effect could have a major impact on public health in the long term, Kopecky says.

Of course global warming didn’t reach a hand down from the sky to light the wildfire. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a direct, provable connection.

And it certainly doesn’t mean Congress should keep sitting on the couch doing nothing about the climate crisis. No, wait – House Republican leaders are proactively trying to make things worse by attacking the Clean Air Act while refusing to roll back Big Oil subsidies. That’s despite a new Yale/George Mason University poll showing 85% of Republicans want clean energy and half want their members of Congress to make climate action a priority.

Considering what the latest climate science tells us about how fast our planet is warming, Washington’s climate inaction the equivalent of responding to a diabetes diagnosis by buying a new flat-screen TV and stocking up on Mountain Dew.

Learn more about the connection between global warming and changes to our weather patterns at