As we hurtle toward peak extreme weather season, the fossil fuel industry has been using the ongoing Russian war against Ukraine to call for continued and deepened reliance on the very products that are driving climate-fueled weather events. This campaign has been amplified by right-wing news outlets such as Fox News, while mainstream cable news outlets have largely failed to challenge this narrative – and in some instances even echoed it.
This year has already seen more than half of the continental United States in drought, the Hermit Peaks Fire ravage New Mexico, and tornadoes devastate large swaths of the Great Plains, Midwest, and South. Meanwhile, many countries – including the United States – are seriously considering locking in decades of continued fossil fuel extraction and burning, despite acknowledging the need to decarbonize their economies.
In this moment, viewers deserve extreme weather coverage that not only clears the bar, but also meets the moment and raises the bar by consistently connecting the science of climate change to increasingly frequent and devastating extreme weather events, detailing the necessity of transitioning away from fossil fuels to mitigate climate change’s worst consequences, and contextualizing how events such as the war in Ukraine could impact our ability to take necessary climate action.
Clearing the bar: In 2021, coverage characterizing extreme weather as climate events peaked. In 2022, national TV news cannot rest on its laurels
Coverage of extreme weather as climate events finally broke through in 2021. Media Matters analysis of discrete, but often concurrent extreme weather events in 2021 — including the deadly heat wave that hit the Pacific Northwest, Hurricane Ida, and raging fires that seemed to scorch all parts of the globe — showed a huge increase in coverage linking extreme weather to climate change. And Media Matters’ annual broadcast study found that extreme weather was a key driver of climate coverage last year, accounting for 35% of morning and nightly broadcast TV news climate coverage.
This year has already witnessed multiple aberrant weather events, including ongoing drought in the western United States, record-breaking wildfires in New Mexico, and devastating heat waves in India and Pakistan destructive tornadoes that devastated parts of the South, and an enormous ice shelf collapse in Antarctica after temperatures reached 70 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. These have been largely ignored by broadcast and cable news, which is why Media Matters has called upon national TV news to cover extreme weather as a year-round phenomenon.
As we move into the start of the North American hurricane season on June 1 and the peak season for extreme weather, energy experts are already predicting that extreme heat and drought “could cause the power grid to buckle across vast areas of the country this summer, potentially leading to electricity shortages and blackouts,” while conditions in the Gulf of Mexico could drive intense, supercharged storms. In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting that 2022 will be the seventh consecutive year of above-normal hurricane activity.
To clear the bar, national TV news will have to consistently connect these events not only to climate change, but to each other in order to tell a more complete story about the climate crisis.
Meeting the moment: National TV news coverage should focus on the need to immediately transition away from fossil fuels
To meet the moment, it is incumbent that national TV news coverage that connects extreme weather to climate change also states explicitly that scientists have found that transitioning away from fossil fuel is necessary to mitigate these events.
Some news segments in the past have approached this standard by discussing extreme weather’s harms on marginalized communities and noting the need for fossil fuel industry accountability. But these segments must become much more frequent and full-throated in making these connections for their audience. According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate mitigation:
Reducing GHG emissions across the full energy sector requires major transitions, including a substantial reduction in overall fossil fuel use, the deployment of low-emission energy sources, switching to alternative energy carriers, and energy efficiency and conservation. The continued installation of unabated fossil fuel infrastructure will ‘lock-in’ GHG emissions. (high confidence)
Coverage should also note that climate change poses risks to “virtually every aspect of the U.S. energy system,” and inform viewers that, even with difficult tradeoffs, the technology to decarbonize by 2035 currently exists.
National TV news must also avoid its tendency to promote expensive and cost-prohibitive fringe solutions such as carbon capture and sequestration, and false solutions that wouldn’t make any meaningful dent in emissions, such as carbon offsets. During extreme weather events that cause blackouts or damage fossil fuel infrastructure, news programs must also avoid problematic framing that reinforces the fossil fuel industry’s demands for increased production.
Raising the bar: National TV news should contextualize concurrent events, such as the war in Ukraine, which affect our ability to reduce reliance on fossil fuels
To raise the bar, national TV news will have to contextualize how concurrent events influence our ability to transition away from fossil fuels and incorporate fossil fuel accountability into its extreme weather coverage.
The fossil fuel industry has been credibly accused by environmental activists of profiteering from economic instability caused by the war in Ukraine, obfuscating its refusal to produce more oil and gas, padding its record 2021 profits via anti-consumerist practices, and moving to deepen the world’s reliance on its products. In response, the Biden administration has pivoted away from aggressive actions to reduce carbon emissions and toward the fossil fuel industry’s demands for a regulatory environment that favors increased production of oil and gas.
Obtaining global agreement on substantive climate action has proven challenging under the best conditions, especially as the world’s most prosperous countries have been credibly accused by poorer countries of not doing enough to limit global warming to 1.5 C above preindustrial levels, which is considered by many climate experts to be the redline for irreversible, devastating climate impacts. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing geopolitical ramifications have made global cooperation on climate action even more tenuous.
There has been little discussion on national TV news about what these current realities mean for climate change and extreme weather. In part, this is because the fossil fuel industry’s successful billion-dollar campaign to erode the public consensus on climate change and thwart meaningful climate action has brought us to the brink of catastrophe. But this moment demands national TV news programs raise the bar on their climate coverage and begin holding the fossil fuel industry accountable.
As increasingly frequent extreme weather becomes more, dangerous, and deadly, TV news coverage must become more comprehensive
It took far too long for national TV news outlets to begin semi-regularly connecting climate science to extreme weather, and there is still much work to do in order to break their cycle of shallow extreme weather coverage.
Peak extreme weather season provides an important window of time for TV news to inform an attentive public about how climate change is driving year-round, catastrophic extreme weather events, how the burning of fossil fuels will lead to runaway climate change, and how the fossil fuel industry is opposing urgently needed actions that could stave off the worst consequences – even as the window for meaningful climate action rapidly closes.