CA storms climate change CNN

Media Matters / Molly Butler

Research/Study Research/Study

Among TV news networks, CNN was alone in consistently connecting California deluge to climate change

CNN’s Nick Watt and Bill Weir drove the network’s climate reporting

Corporate broadcast news networks and cable news networks, with the exception of CNN, largely failed to connect the storms wreaking havoc earlier this week in California and other parts of the western U.S. to climate change. 

Heavy precipitation from an atmospheric river — the second one to hit Southern California in recent weeks — has caused destructive flooding that unleashed mudslides and gale-force winds, which knocked out power for hundreds of thousands in California and throughout the West, leaving at least three people dead. Los Angeles was hit with six months worth of rain in just a few days, and these storms carry the fingerprint of our warming climate: As reported by NPR, climate scientists say “the intensity of recent atmospheric rivers is almost certainly affected by human-caused climate change.”

In fact, the link between heavy precipitation and our warming climate is well understood by scientists. However, similar to coverage of the relentless rain that inundated California last January and the record rainfall in Texas last month, TV news largely failed to communicate the relationship between climate change and the flooding events unfolding this month.

  • Key findings

  • From February 5, when a second atmospheric river hit California, through February 6:

    • Cable news networks CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC aired 81 combined segments on the California rain. Just 10 segments, or 12% of the total, mentioned climate change. 
    • All 10 climate mentions appeared on CNN. The vast majority (7) came from correspondent Nick Watt. Chief climate correspondent Bill Weir appeared in two segments to discuss the connection between climate and the flooding. One link was made by CNN News Central co-anchor Sara Sidner. 
    • Corporate broadcast news networks ABC, CBS, and NBC aired a combined 30 segments on California storms during the same time period. Only one of these segments, by ABC’s Ginger Zee, mentioned climate change.
  • Extreme weather is happening year-round, and CNN showed how to situate these events within the climate crisis

  • Reporting from Los Angeles on February 5, CNN correspondent Nick Watt appeared in coverage throughout the day and consistently reported on the relationship between our warming climate and the heavy precipitation in California. On CNN News Central, for example, Watt explained, “Why is this happening? Well, the ocean of the Pacific is warmed by climate change.” 

    In a report which appeared on several CNN programs, Watt dove into even more detail, describing the atmospheric river as “a conveyor belt of moisture fueled by El Niño and the unusually warm Pacific” that “can carry 20 times more water than the Mississippi [River].” He added that this year’s “El Niño is now classed as very strong, only the fourth time it has reached that level in 50 years. Combined with oceans already warm from climate change, it is supercharging these types of storms.” 

    “LA and beyond, 14 million people now officially at high risk level for excessive rainfall,” Watt continued. “Remember this state was recently in a mega drought. Then record rainfall last winter. And now this. Scientists call that ‘weather whiplash,’ and say such violent swings will become increasingly common as the planet warms in years to come.”

  • Video file

    Citation From the February 5, 2024, edition of CNN's The Lead with Jake Tapper

  • CNN chief climate correspondent Bill Weir appeared in two segments during the period reviewed to discuss the relationship between the heavy precipitation and climate change. Appearing on The Lead with Jake Tapper, he built off of Watt’s reporting, explicitly identifying fossil fuel pollution as the driver of climate change through “the unnatural warming from man-made activities” and connecting it to “the double whammy effect that we are having” from this year’s strong El Niño. Going further, Weir also suggested that adaptation is needed for places that are repeatedly experiencing climate-fueled events:

  • BILL WEIR (CNN CHIEF CLIMATE CORRESPONDENT): El Niño could ease in the next year or two but we still have the climate change on top of that, so a lot of hope for folks is that these are lessons — it is not a storm to grit your teeth and get through, but these lessons for how to adapt and how to think about living in places like California in the future.

  • Earlier in the day, Weir appeared on CNN News Central. In addition to making the link between the flooding and climate, he emphasized the relationship between climate change and the burning of fossil fuels, explaining the need to see what’s unfolding in California not as a single event but part of the broader climate crisis.

  • Video file

    Citation From the February 5, 2024, edition of CNN News Central

  • Extreme weather is becoming a regular part of TV news coverage, but it has too often been reported without giving the context of the climate crisis. Watt and Weir demonstrate how extreme weather coverage can be better. 

    The U.S. experienced a record number of billion-dollar disasters in 2023, and the planet experienced its hottest year on record. A relentless heat wave claimed over 600 lives in Phoenix, Arizona, and some places in the U.S. are becoming virtually uninhabitable as insurance companies pull out of states that now regularly experience extreme weather. 

    So far, 2024 is already bringing back-to-back extreme weather in the U.S., while Chile is experiencing what will likely be its deadliest wildfires on record. With more climate-driven disasters surely on the horizon, it’s past time for consistent and clear-eyed coverage that places extreme weather events within the broader climate crisis.

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original episodes of ABC’s Good Morning America and World News Tonight, CBS’ Mornings and Evening News, and NBC’s Today and Nightly News as well as all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “atmospheric river,” “boulder,” or “storm” or any variation of any of the terms “flood,” “rain,” “mud,” or “rock” within close proximity of any of the terms “California,” “Nevada,” “Los Angeles,” “San Diego,” or “west coast” from February 5, 2024, when a second atmospheric river hit California and other parts of the West Coast, through February 6, 2024.

    We included segments, which we defined as instances when the extreme rain and flooding events due to the second atmospheric river were the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of the extreme rain and flooding. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the extreme rain and flooding with one another.

    We did not include passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker in a segment on another topic mentioned the extreme rain and flooding without another speaker in the segment engaging with the comment, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about the extreme rain and flooding scheduled to air later in the broadcast.

    We then reviewed the identified segments for mentions of the terms “climate” or “global warming.”