Maui Fire Coverage Ignored Fossil Fuel Responsibility

When wildfires tore across Maui on August 9, devastating the Hawaiian island gem, media covered the disaster extensively. Broadcast news featured dramatic photographs that showed the horrors of the island’s destruction, with online videos shared everywhere from the Weather Channel to Inside Edition. Reporting carried testimonial descriptions like “war zone” and “apocalyptic.” On Twitter, before-and-after pictures of Lahaina confirmed that the town, home to Indigenous communities and historic sites, no longer existed.

Most of the corporate press focused on the island’s sensational visual destruction, official responses, body counts and destroyed structures. Meanwhile, news reports largely confused or denied the climate crisis’s contribution to the fire, and ignored the connections between fossil fuel use, increased CO2 levels and planetary heating.

Crisis reporting’s lack of context 

 Six killed in wildfires burning in Hawaii, authorities urge tourists to stay away

The Washington Post (8/9/23) quoted Hawaii’s governor, ““We never anticipated in this state that a hurricane that did not make impact on our islands would cause these kind of wildfires”—but the word “climate” doesn’t appear in the article.

A long Washington Post piece (8/9/23) described Maui’s power outages, cell phone blackout, clogged roads and evacuations. It made no mention of the climate crisis.

The following day, the Post (8/10/23) reported that “the fires left 89 people dead and damaged or destroyed more than 2,200 structures and buildings.” Headlining the article, “What We Know About the Cause of the Maui Wildfires,” the paper didn’t include “climate change” or its synonyms in the text. Instead, the Post identified three “risk” factors: “months of drought, low humidity and high winds.” What caused the months of drought on a tropical island not previously prone to wildfires? The Post didn’t seem interested in pursuing the question.

The piece also offered no information for understanding the similarities to the fires that had raged across Canada and turned the skies of the Northeast an eerie color of orange only two months earlier (, 7/18/23). The only reference point the Post gave for comparison was Hurricane Lane, which hit the Hawaiian Islands in 2018, causing heavy rains and later burning 3,000 acres of land—yet the reporters made no connection between climate instability and stronger, more intense storms.

The San Francisco Chronicle (8/10/23) published a stand-alone photo essay with captions, many taken with drones or aerial photography, that included a series of before-and-after images of Lahaina and the loss of historic sites, including the scorching of the banyan tree planted in 1870 to mark the 50th anniversary of the arrival of missionaries on the island. Though under the heading of “Climate,” no mention was made of the changing climate.

‘A symptom of human-caused climate change’

 How Climate Change Turned Lush Hawaii Into a Tinderbox

Even when specifically addressing the impact of climate disruption, the New York Times (8/10/23) fails to mention the role of oil and other fossil fuels.

Some in the press did draw connections to the climate crisis. For instance, Axios (8/10/23), in a piece headlined, “The Climate Link to Maui’s Wildfire Tragedy,” framed the disaster within a climate discourse: “Researchers say climate change has likely been a contributing factor to the deadly wildfires in Hawaii.” Axios also drew correlations to the “summer of blistering, record-breaking heat, that puts climate in focus,” referencing the wildfires destroying Canadian forests and creating a health hazard across the US.

Importantly, Axios went further, admitting that climate change is a consequence of human activity: “Increased wildfire risk is also a symptom of human-caused climate change, scientists say.” A link took readers to previous Axios reporting (5/16/22) on research that tracks wildfire risks to the built environment, writing, “Climate change will cause a steep increase in the exposure of US properties to wildfire risks during the next 30 years.” Yet even while making these connections, Axios failed to include fossil fuels and CO2 in the text.

A New York Times piece headlined “How Climate Change Turned Lush Hawaii into a Tinder Box” (8/10/23) seemed focused on climate disruption: “As the planet heats up, no place is protected from disasters.” It documented the “long-term decline” in annual rainfall,” matter-of-factly citing multiple causes such as El Niño fluctuations, storms moving north and less cloud cover. But like Axios, the Times remained silent on what’s at the root of all this: fossil fuel combustion, and the gas and oil industries.

More, the Times asserted “It’s difficult to directly attribute any single hurricane to climate change”—as though there are some weather events that are affected by the climate, and others that are not. This is the discredited language of climate denial and doubt, pushed for decades by Exxon and other mega-fossil fuel corporations. Why include it, when the next sentence acknowledges that bigger storms result from increasing temperatures?

The report released by the IPCC in 2021 (8/9/21) did not mince words:

The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk.

The UN Secretary-General called it “code red for humanity.” Bill McKibben’s 2021 review of the report in the New Yorker (8/11/21) charged humans with “wreaking havoc” on the planet: We are “setting it on fire.”

Much is now understood about climate change and how best to convey information about it clearly. It’s important to lead with the main point that the planet is warming, and that fossil fuel combustion is the greatest contributor. In Communicating the Science of Climate Change (2011), Richard Summerville and Susan Joy Hassol of Climate Communication write that a common mistake in climate messaging is overdoing “the level of detail, and people can have difficulty sorting out what is important. In short, the more you say, the less they hear.

‘Climate change can’t be blamed’

 Maui fires not just due to climate change but a ‘compound disaster’

The Washington Post (8/12/23) saying that the fires were also caused by “weather patterns that happen naturally” is like reporting that a house didn’t burn down just because of arson, but also because it was made of wood.

Two days later, the Washington Post (8/12/23) had solidified what can be described as a “discourse of confusion” with the headline, “Maui Fires Not Just Due to Climate Change but a ‘Compound Disaster.’”

There is not just one “standout factor,” it asserted, but different “agents acting together.” The article explained that rising temperatures contributed to the severity of the blaze, but “global warming could not have driven the fires by itself.” Other “human influences” on “climate and environment” are causing these disasters to escalate. Making a distinction between planetary warming and other “human influences” on “environment” muddies the connections between a warming planet and extreme weather events, and confuses the realities of climate disruption. It obscures who is responsible and what must change.

For climate scientist David Ho (Twitter, 8/10/23), a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the cause of the Maui fires was straightforward and stated clearly:

People associate Hawaii with tropical conditions, but rainfall has been decreasing for decades because of climate change, drying out the lush landscape and making it increasingly susceptible to wildfire damage.

Another climate scientist and energy policy expert, Leah Stokes at UC Santa Barbara, was also clear about climate change and the Maui fires. Over a image of Lahaina, she posted (Twitter, 8/9/23): “This is climate change. Every day we delay cutting fossil fuels, more tragedies like this happen.”

When ABC News (8/15/23) went even further and published the headline: “Why Climate Change Can’t Be Blamed for the Maui Wildfires,” climate reporter Emily Atkin, of the newsletter Heated (8/17/23), went to the article’s sources to ask if the headline phrasing accurately reflected their comments. They all said their words had been taken out of context. The headline was later edited to add “entirely” after “blamed.”

The incident was picked by the Poynter Institute (8/18/23), which quoted Atkin saying, “Climate change absolutely can be partially blamed for the severity of the Maui disaster because climate change worsens wildfires, and climate change plays a role in literally all weather events.”

Discouraging action

 Native Hawaiian Kaniela Ing on Fires, Colonialism & Banyan Tree

Kaniela Ing (Democracy Now!, 8/11/23): “Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, Tim Scott, Joe Manchin, oil companies and anyone in power who denies climate change, to me, are the arsonists here.”

That sort of reporting done by the Post and ABC discourages much-needed action—as does reporting like NPR’s “The Role Climate Change Played in Hawaii’s Devastating Wildfires” (All Things Considered, 8/10/23). That piece led with standard crisis reporting and a resident of Lahaina who said everything he had is gone, then moved to details of an island in ruins. Testimonial descriptions included one woman’s story of jumping into the water and witnessing her pet and friend dying. A mobile doctor says, “It just seems unfair.” We are left with feelings of despair.

Reporting on our environmental crisis, heavy on description and ratings-driven horror, and mostly devoid of clear explanations and solutions, most establishment media offer only despair and inevitability. It has long been understood that the presentation of images and discussions of the horrors of environmental and human suffering, presented without direct actions to be taken, are experienced as an anguishing emotional blow.

As Erin Hawley and Gabi Mocatta wrote in Popular Communication (4/22),  addressing planetary suffering should be told with new stories where audiences can “write themselves into the story of building a better future.” Solution-focused storytelling offers accurate documentation of the crisis, but follows with policies able to address our current climate emergency, and even details of available technologies and transformative climate solutions (, 7/18/23).

There are solutions in place, which are rarely mentioned in corporate media. For example, Stanford University published research (One Earth, 12/20/19) that compared alternative energy to the existing model in 143 countries, accounting for 99.7% of the world’s CO2 emissions. Researchers found that transitioning to 100% wind, water and solar (WWS) reduces global energy needs by 57%, energy costs by 61%, and social costs by 91%, while avoiding blackouts and creating millions more jobs than lost.

As Native Hawaiian Kaniela Ing told Democracy Now! (8/11/23): “We need to end and phase out, deny all new fossil fuel permits, and really empower the communities that build back ourselves democratically. That’s the solution for it.”

Corporate journalism is currently failing to tell, accurately and compellingly, the most important story of our time: what the causes of the climate crisis are, and what can be done to stop the destruction of people and the planet as we know it.

Featured Image: Weather Channel (8/16/23)