Media Matters’ latest annual climate study found that approximately 1,316 minutes — nearly 22 hours — were spent discussing climate change on morning, evening, and Sunday morning news shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox Broadcasting Co. in 2021, a more than threefold increase from 2020. Nearly 14 of the 22 hours of coverage was aired on morning news shows - where meteorologists were a key driver of the increased quantity and improved quality of broadcast news’ climate coverage, responsible for 37% of overall morning show climate segments last year.
Here is a closer look at how meteorologists at ABC, CBS, and NBC covered climate in 2021:
- Network TV meteorologists were involved in approximately 37% of corporate broadcast morning news shows’ climate coverage in 2021 – 133 out of 363 total segments.
- Of these, 81 were weather reports, representing 22% of overall climate segments on morning news.
- Meteorologists also featured in more traditional network correspondent reports about climate change, appearing as the lead correspondent in 41 climate segments, representing 11% of overall morning show climate segments.
This improved climate coverage stems in part from the #MetsUnite campaign started in 2018, which saw meteorologists feature their ties, necklaces, and coffee mugs with a distinctive “warming stripes”' pattern to raise awareness of the climate crisis during their broadcasts. Climate Central’s Climate Matters campaign has also played an important role in enabling meteorologists to make climate change relevant to their viewers by providing them localized information on climate change impacts. Experts assert the importance of this because TV meteorologists, as trusted authorities on climate science, are well-positioned to help viewers understand how climate change affects their local communities.
The fruits of this labor find meteorologists, at both the national and local level, doing a strong job of elevating climate change stories by explaining and contextualizing the science for their viewers in 2021.
National meteorologists continued a positive trend of contextualizing climate science in their weather broadcasts
Meteorologists on CBS, NBC, and ABC figured significantly in their networks’ climate coverage in 2021.
NBC’s Al Roker and Dylan Dreyer were involved in nearly half of Today’s climate segments – 55 out of 120 (46%). Notably, 36 of them were weather reports, representing 30% of the show’s overall climate segments. Roker, in particular, has been a driving force in NBC’s climate coverage for years. They also both co-host Today’s third hour, which ran 16 climate segments in 2021, representing 13% of the show’s total.
ABC’s Ginger Zee and Rob Marciano also participated in nearly half of ABC’s climate segments – 49 out of 106 (46%). Good Morning America ran 25 weather reports as climate segments in 2021, which represented 23% of its overall climate coverage. Not only did the two meteorologists drive the increased quantity of ABC’s climate coverage in 2021, both did a good job in connecting climate to discrete extreme weather events in the summer of 2021.
In comparison, CBS’ Jeff Berardelli, Bill Karins, and Evelyn Taft were involved in 29 of CBS’ 137 overall climate segments – just 21%. Additionally, 20 of CBS Mornings’ climate segments were weather reports, representing 15% of its overall coverage. Berardelli in particular has played an important role in CBS Mornings’ climate reporting for years, and he has been outspoken about the necessity of journalists covering climate more frequently. He appeared in many of CBS’ summer extreme weather segments, connecting climate to these events in either weather reports or as a correspondent in a report.
Berardelli, Roker, and Zee reaffirmed their commitment to explaining the climate link to certain extreme weather events in a recent article in The New York Times that detailed how TV meteorologists are changing their traditional role of weather reporting as the climate warms:
But Ms. Zee and her colleagues see themselves as tracking maybe the most serious story of our time. Increasingly destructive weather had already given TV meteorologists a more visceral presence in viewers’ lives. In the last few years, though, they have often gone out of their way to remind viewers explicitly that human-created climate change is a real and disruptive force that has put lives and the environment at risk.
“As a scientist and someone who understands the atmosphere, I have not only a passion but a true connection to climate science,” Ms. Zee, who majored in meteorology at Valparaiso University, said in an interview.
“During the weathercast, you generally want to give people what they’re looking for at that moment,” said Jeff Berardelli, who moved to NBC’s Tampa affiliate in November after time as a national meteorologist for CBS News. “But when the opportunity presents itself, I will put it into its climate context.”
Other forecasters insisted that positive feedback for climate coverage far outweighed negative responses. “I don’t look at my position as a bully pulpit,” Mr. Roker said. “It’s informational. You can open more eyes by just presenting facts.
“Our management and producers don’t underestimate our audience,” he added. “I think politicians may.”
Meteorologists played a key role in explaining how climate change drives extreme weather events
After years of largely failing to link extreme weather and climate change, corporate broadcast news has finally started to more consistently characterize these connections. In fact, coverage of extreme weather events represented 35% of combined broadcast nightly and morning news climate segments in 2021, a year rife with devastating extreme climate events.
This includes a historic winter storm that ground the entire state of Texas to a standstill in February and “brought days of subfreezing temperatures and widespread power outages, causing billions of dollars in damages and hundreds of deaths.” Later in the year, the United States had the hottest June on record and the most extreme heat wave in history, with record-breaking and deadly temperatures hitting the Pacific Northwest U.S. and British Columbia, Canada. On the heels of June, July was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth.
The longstanding drought in the western United States, which was estimated to be one of the worst in 1,200 years, intensified due to the summer’s extreme heat conditions, and both played an important role in driving the extremely intense wildfires that burned 7.7 million acres across the country in all of 2021. In August, California’s Dixie Fire became the largest single fire in state history. Wildfires also devastated large swaths of the Mediterranean that month, likely exacerbated by the hottest summer in European history.
In late August and early September, Hurricane Ida rapidly intensified from a Category 1 to a Category 4 storm because of warmer than usual ocean water, becoming one of the most intense tropical storms in United States history. The storm devastated the Gulf Coast and triggered record rainfall and flooding across the Northeast.
Broadcast meteorologists performed strongly during these events by finding ways to communicate how climate change is escalating the catastrophic extreme weather upending the lives of millions of people at a time. For example, Berardelli detailed how climate change was driving last summer's extreme weather during a CBS Mornings segment that aired last August.
During an August 30, 2021, segment about Hurricane Ida, NBC’s Roker explained how hotter Gulf waters, driven by global warming, helped the storm rapidly intensify.
Zee used the occasion of Hurricane Ida to mark the 16 years since the day Hurricane Katrina hit. Her segment for ABC focused on the “geographic inequities” that made flooding worse for Black communities in New Orleans during Katrina, as well as the underlying socioeconomic inequality and racist policies that continue to make it harder for those communities to return and rebuild.
Local meteorologists have taken up the challenge of discussing climate change
National broadcast meteorologists speak to wide viewerships and command national attention for their weather segments, and their efforts to report on climate change have garnered them rightful acclaim. But there are a number of local TV meteorologists who are also producing informative and engaging segments for their viewers, and many of them contextualized the extreme weather their area was experiencing in 2021.
During a June 28, 2021, broadcast, KGW chief meteorologist Matt Zaffino used research from Climate Central to detail how climate change influenced the extreme heat wave that baked Portland, Oregon, and the larger Pacific Northwest.
During the August 5, 2021, broadcast, KPIX meteorologist Darren Peck walked viewers through an explanation about how global warming has affected California's wildfire season.
WUSA9 meteorologist Chester Lampkin took time during the August 25, 2021, broadcast to discuss how climate change is driving higher temperatures and increased flooding in Washington, D.C.
Using a Climate Central climate scenario tool, Boston 25 meteorologist Vicki Graf led a segment during the October 14, 2021, broadcast that showed viewers Boston’s potential future as sea levels rise.
NBC10 First Alert Weather meteorologist Steve Sosna explained how climate change is increasing winter temperatures in the Philadelphia area during a November 3, 2021, segment.
There’s still much work to be done
Despite 2021 being a stand-out year for climate coverage, climate segments on corporate broadcast TV networks still accounted for only 1% of overall news programming, with much of the weight carried by network meteorologists. One way for news outlets to improve this is by framing extreme weather events as part of the new normal marked by year-round extreme climate events rather than isolated weather phenomenon. The August 2021 IPCC report underscored the importance of understanding and conveying the difference, noting:
The distinction between extreme weather events and extreme climate events is not precise, but is related to their specific time scales:
- An extreme weather event is typically associated with changing weather patterns, that is, within time frames of less than a day to a few weeks.
- An extreme climate event happens on longer time scales. It can be the accumulation of several (extreme or non-extreme) weather events (e.g., the accumulation of moderately below-average rainy days over a season leading to substantially below-average cumulated rainfall and drought conditions).
As the window for meaningful climate action rapidly closes, national news programs must tell a more complete story about the climate crisis. Broadcast TV meteorologists have led the way by committing to cover climate change; it is time for their network colleagues to follow suit.
For the methodology behind the data in this article, see the full study: How broadcast TV networks covered climate change in 2021.