Broadcast TV networks increase climate solutions coverage in 2019, but there’s still work to do
In 2019, the major corporate broadcast networks' nightly news and Sunday morning programs mentioned solutions and/or actions to address climate change in roughly 37% of their overall climate coverage. This is a large increase over the previous two years, when solutions to climate change were mentioned collectively in less than 20% of overall climate coverage. Climate activism and advocacy, the Green New Deal, and the upcoming presidential election all played a role in the increase of climate solutions mentions. Some programs featured questionable solutions or used conservative narratives to challenge climate action.
Media Matters analyzed segments on the three half-hour nightly news programs -- ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News -- and four hour-long Sunday morning news programs -- ABC's This Week, CBS' Face the Nation, NBC's Meet the Press, and Fox News Sunday.
Corporate broadcast TV networks covered solutions and responses to climate change in roughly 37% of climate-related segments
Thirty-seven percent of climate segments that aired in 2019 on the major nightly or Sunday morning news shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox -- 52 out of 139 segments -- mentioned solutions or actions taken to address climate change. This nearly doubled from 2017 and 2018, when less than 20% of all climate segments that aired on these shows mentioned climate solutions.
CBS aired the most climate solutions segments at 29, but NBC had the highest percentage of segments mentioning responses to the climate crisis -- 13 segments, or 41%. CBS mentioned climate solutions in 39% of its segments. Both mark a sizable increase from 2018. ABC mentioned climate solutions in 24% of its climate segments (seven) in 2019; in 2018, the network did so in 25% of segments.
Fox News Sunday did not air a single segment mentioning climate solutions in 2017 and 2018. In 2019, the show mentioned solutions in three out of four total climate segments. These solutions all dealt with the Green New Deal.
The data for this report came from Media Matters’ recent study of how climate change was covered in 2019 on broadcast TV networks, which found that while coverage of climate change on broadcast TV networks increased 68% from 2019 to 2019, it still made up only 0.7% of overall coverage.
Adaptation and mitigation made up the majority of solutions mentions
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) describes adaptation as “the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects,” while mitigation is described as “human intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases.” Examples of adaptation include building coastal flood protections and greening buildings, while examples of mitigation can include increasing energy efficiency and transitioning to renewable energy.
Fifty-six percent of the segments on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox News Sunday that addressed solutions made mention of either adaptation or mitigation efforts (other than specific renewable energy technologies) as a way to deal with climate change.
CBS focused heavily on adaptation efforts. There were 10 segments that mentioned various adaptation efforts across all of the network’s climate segments. NBC and ABC each mentioned adaptation once.
Three of CBS’ segments dealt with adaptation efforts in the Arctic, including how Antarctic penguins and residents of Greenland are adapting to a changing climate. Three segments dealt with how winegrowers are adapting to climate change affecting the wine industry. This example, from October 20, shows how scientists are experimenting with different planting techniques to both save the wine industry and also fight climate change:
An April 22 segment from CBS Evening News mentioned that it’s important to engage indigenous people in the fight against climate change, as they understand the forests and have adapted to its changing conditions.
Two adaptation segments mentioned how areas are adapting to sea level rise. On September 25, CBS Evening News noted that Miami is raising its streets and fortifying its seawall. On September 28, the show mentioned that California state officials had rerouted a major highway to move it inland.
ABC’s only adaptation mention came on the August 8 episode of World News Tonight, when the show covered the IPCC’s Special Report on Climate Change and Land. NBC’s only mention came during the September 17 episode of NBC Nightly News, when the show mentioned how Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay is preparing to adapt to rising sea levels.
Adaptation is a necessary and important approach to solving climate change, but adaptation on its own is not a solution to climate change. “Rapid, unprecedented cuts” in carbon emissions is the only way to stave off the worst effects of the crisis, and it’s important to mention that when discussing adaptation efforts. Unfortunately, only one segment mentioning adaptation also mentioned emissions reductions as a way to combat climate change. This came during a segment on the IPCC’s Special Report on Climate Change and Land on the August 8 episode of CBS Evening News.
Mitigation strategies and technologies other than specific renewable energy technologies were mentioned 17 times as a solution to climate change -- nine times on CBS, five times on NBC, two times on ABC, and just once on Fox News Sunday.
The most commonly mentioned mitigation topic was electric transportation, which came up six times. Five of these were general mentions within segments, while one segment, airing December 15 on CBS Evening News, focused entirely on electric vehicles.
The transportation sector is the largest source of carbon emissions in the U.S. The deployment of more electric vehicles can play an important role in reducing emissions in this sector.
Reforestation was mentioned in two segments, while removing non-native grasses to help Joshua trees grow was mentioned in one segment. Climate change has made it difficult for Joshua trees to reproduce.
A carbon tax was mentioned in two segments. A carbon tax is a well-researched, effective way to get countries to reduce carbon emissions, although the tax needs to be very high now to really make an impact.
Carbon capture was mentioned in two segments. Carbon capture is a largely untested solution that is considered controversial.
Energy efficiency, which the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) refers to as “using technology that requires less energy to perform the same function,” was mentioned once. Additionally, a specific mention about retrofitting old buildings to be more energy-efficient was made by former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg during the March 17 episode of Fox News Sunday. Making buildings more energy efficient is cost-effective and an excellent way to cut down on carbon emissions.
Nuclear energy came up only once, mentioned by Chuck Todd on the April 14 episode of Meet the Press. Nuclear power is currently the largest carbon-free source of electricity generation in the U.S.; however, questions remain about the technology’s cost-effectiveness, its unresolved waste issues, and the time it takes to actually build new reactors.
Renewable energy technologies were mentioned 10 times as a solution to climate change -- four times on NBC, three times on CBS, twice on ABC, and once on Fox News Sunday.
Perhaps the most engaging discussion involving renewable energy occurred on the March 3 episode of ABC’s This Week.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee appeared in four climate solutions segments in 2019 -- the March 3 episode of This Week, the February 24 episode of Face the Nation, the April 14 episode of Meet the Press, and the June 16 episode of NBC Nightly News -- and he mentioned renewable energy technologies in three of these appearances.
All of the segments featuring a mention of renewable energy came on the Sunday shows. Most talked about renewable energy in general; there was little specific discussion about specific types of renewable energy, although several examples are worth mentioning. On the April 14 episode of ABC’s This Week, guest Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) talked up wind turbine manufacturing, noting that “there's so much that needs to be manufactured. … There's 800 component parts to a wind turbine -- that's manufacturing jobs.” On the April 14 episode of Meet the Press, Inslee mentioned that his state built a $6 billion wind power industry.
There were no segments that focused specifically on solar power, which has seen the largest percentage growth of any U.S. energy source over the past decade.
Fox News and NBC mentioned the Green New Deal the most
Every Green New Deal mention came on a Sunday show. Mentions of the Green New Deal in the context of climate solutions occurred three times each on Fox News Sunday and NBC’s Meet the Press and twice on ABC’s This Week. CBS was the only network to not mention the Green New Deal in 2019. There were no nightly news show segments devoted to the Green New Deal.
As discussed in our 2019 climate broadcast study, all but one of these segments fell into the trap of tactical framing. However, there were mentions of actual Green New Deal policies in some segments. For example, Tim Ryan brought up wind jobs in the aforementioned April 14 episode of ABC’s This Week. Pete Buttigieg mentioned building retrofitting on the March 17 episode of Fox News Sunday. And Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez mentioned building a clean energy economy on the February 17 episode of Meet the Press.
Two of the segments that mentioned the Green New Deal -- the February 10 episode of Fox News Sunday, and the February 24 episode of NBC’s Meet the Press -- didn’t bring up clean energy or renewable energy technology at all.
Fox News Sunday’s focus on the Green New Deal is not all that surprising. Even before the plan was officially announced, Fox News relentlessly mocked the proposal and lied about it. In the five days after the plan was released, Fox dominated the cable news discussion of it, and often didn’t even mention climate change when talking about it.
Climate activism was mentioned 12 times in 2019, compared to just once the previous two years
A majority of climate segments on climate activism in 2019 were about the youth climate strikes or activist Greta Thunberg. Over the previous two years, there was just one mention of climate activism -- a June 2018 segment on CBS Evening News about a man swimming across the Pacific Ocean in order to raise awareness for climate change.
NBC Nightly News was the only major network to cover the first major climate strike on March 15.
Overall, U.S. media coverage of the massive March 15 global climate strike was generally poor.
The September 20 climate strikes garnered much better coverage, and all three major nightly news shows aired segments on these strikes.
Coverage of other campaigns included segments on Jane Fonda, divestment protestors at a Harvard-Yale football game, and John Kerry’s World War Zero initiative.
Divestment and specific legislation or regulations rounded out the solutions mentions
Divestment from fossil fuels was mentioned twice in 2019. Former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer mentioned this effort during an interview with This Week, while CBS Evening News covered a divestment protest at the Harvard vs. Yale football game in November 2019. Divestment is becoming an increasingly effective way of putting pressure on fossil fuel companies.
Specific legislation or regulations to deal with climate change other than the Green New Deal were mentioned five times. Jay Inlsee was part of three of these segments. In two segments, he mentioned Washington state’s 100% clean energy grid bill, which will require Washington to generate 100% of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2045. He also mentioned restoring environmental regulations that were gutted by the Trump administration in his Meet the Press interview. Other mentions came amid discussions of carbon tax legislation and California’s efforts to regulate vehicle emissions.
Coverage featuring climate solutions included some false solutions and right-wing narratives
While the majority of discussions around climate solutions and actions were constructive, some broadcast news programs featured false or unproven solutions; used tactical framing; or advanced the industry and right-wing media narrative that climate action will require great personal sacrifice and place an enormous burden on the United States.
For example, there was a missed opportunity to push back on a carbon capture claim, which came during the June 2 episode of CBS’ Face the Nation. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) was describing a recent trip to the Arctic, where he said he saw climate change “first-hand.” He stated:
So we as humans have a responsibility to do something. I'm not for elimination because that's not practical. You're not going to stop the rest of the sovereign countries of the world from using the energy in their backyard. But we can use it much cleaner. I was at the university in Stockholm, in Aberdeen, and saw carbon capture utilization, not sequestering and trying to pump it in the ground, by using it as byproducts in valued assets.
Elimination of fossil fuels and emissions is exactly what science says we need to do in order to solve the climate crisis. Additionally, although carbon capture technologies exist, they are nascent, prohibitively expensive, and have been criticized for providing cover to allow companies to extract more fossil fuels. Unfortunately, host Margaret Brennan did not provide any pushback.
The Green New Deal, perhaps the biggest climate solution introduced in 2019, often fell victim to tactical framing. All but one of the nine Sunday show segments on the proposal were focused on its political implications. For example, on the February 10 episode of Meet the Press, host Chuck Todd opened a Green New Deal question by including President Donald Trump’s response to the proposal, asking if it was a “healthy debate” within the Democratic Party, and if it is a potential election opening for Trump.
Questions really should have led with how it can help mitigate climate change, not whether it is politically convenient for the Republican Party.
Two examples from ABC highlight the framing of the climate problem that both the fossil fuel industry and the right-wing are pushing. During a discussion on the Green New Deal on the March 3 episode of This Week, host George Stephanopolous stated, “You laid out the optimistic view, and there’s a good case for that, and there’s no question that taking on the issue of climate change -- all the science has reached a consensus on this -- is critical. But who is going to bear the burden of taking on -- what kind of sacrifices will you require from Americans?”
The idea that major personal sacrifice is necessary to fight climate change is a major talking point of the fossil fuel industry. It allows them to deflect the blame and suggest that individuals are responsible for the problem, which is completely false.
On the August 11 episode of This Week, John Karl asked Al Gore, “What do you say to those that say that even if the United States gets to zero carbon emissions, it’s gonna only have a limited impact if China, India, the developing world doesn't change -- it’s not going to address the problem.” Insinuating that China and India are the real problem is a favorite talking point of the right. Yes, climate change solutions will require the collective action of China and India, but the vast majority of the problem has already come from the U.S. and much of the western world. Karl went on to ask why the United States should bear the brunt of the global response to climate change. Questions should be framed less around this problem and more on solutions and the real cost of inaction.
These examples are instructive on how climate coverage can be undermined by so-called solutions that allow for the continued burning of fossil fuels and by inserting industry-backed and right-wing media-peddled narratives into discussions on climate action.
PBS again led the way in discussing solutions
PBS Newshour mentioned climate solutions in 51 out of its 121 climate segments in 2019, or 42% of them. This is a large increase over the previous two years -- in 2018, the show mentioned climate solutions in 32% of its overall climate segments, and in 2017, it mentioned solutions in just 14% of segments.
Because PBS Newshour is an hour long, PBS had more time than its nightly news counterparts to discuss solutions in depth.
PBS mentioned climate awareness-raising campaigns nearly twice as much as its network nightly counterparts combined. The network aired roughly nine-minute segments on the climate activism of both Jane Fonda and Greta Thunberg. One interesting segment came on May 29, with an investment banker-turned-artist who is using her art to spread awareness about climate change in Miami. The show also covered several climate strike movements; in addition to covering the March 15 and September 20 climate strikes, it mentioned a strike in Belgium on January 24 and a strike in Germany on March 29.
There’s also one example of PBS Newshour talking about the Green New Deal the correct way: interviewing one of its sponsors and focusing on the actual policy and climate impacts of the deal, not just its political implications. This happened on February 7 in an interview with Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), where he explained the substance behind the proposal.
While there were 16 mentions of renewable energy, most of these were just general mentions within broader segments. PBS also mentioned mitigation 16 times. One of these mentions, on March 27, was about geoengineering (a controversial and largely untested solution to climate change); another, on September 20, mentioned nuclear power and whether it can fit into the United States’ energy mix.
Talking about climate solutions can help spur action
A 2015 study noted that media coverage of climate change can either spur cynicism or inspire activism to climate change, while a 2018 study highlighted the importance of “solutions journalism” in climate change coverage. Susan Hassol of Climate Communication has put it simply: “We need to stop trying to give science lessons, and talk about the solutions. The sweet spot is on the solution side.”
Already in 2020, we are seeing good glimpses of climate solutions being discussed more and more in the media. The two papers of record -- The New York Times and The Washington Post -- have so far this year published opinions on climate solutions. In The New York Times, two climate scientists call out President Trump's "dangerous diversion" that is planting trees as a solution to climate change, while reminding us to focus on the companies that are actually responsible for carbon emissions. In The Washington Post, one writer explains how peer pressure can be an effective way to deal with climate change. Maddie Stone at Grist detailed how local TV weathercasters are often at the forefront of the solutions discussion, and explained the work done by groups like Climate Matters, which exist to help meteorologists understand climate solutions and how to communicate them.
The increase in climate solutions coverage on the broadcast TV networks from 2018 to 2019 was a good thing; let’s hope it continues in 2020 and beyond.
Media Matters analyzed coverage from January 1, 2019, to December 31, 2019, on nightly news shows -- ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and PBS NewsHour -- and Sunday morning news shows -- ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos, CBS' Face the Nation, NBC's Meet the Press, and Fox News Sunday. To identify segments that discussed climate change, we searched the Nexis database for transcripts that included the following terms: climate change, global warming, changing climate, climate warms, climate warming, warming climate, warmer climate, warming planet, warmer planet, warming globe, warmer globe, global temperatures, rising temperatures, hotter temperatures, climate science, climate scientist, Paris climate, climate accord, Paris accord, climate agreement, Paris agreement, climate deal, climate crisis, and green new deal. Within the segments that discussed climate change, we identified those that discussed solutions and responses to climate change by coding for coverage of adaptation, mitigation, climate activism, renewable energy, clean technology, climate action taken by entities other than the U.S. government, the Green New Deal, divestment, and specific legislation and/or regulations. Our analysis included any segment devoted to climate change, as well as any substantial mention or definitive statement on climate change by a media figure on these networks, which we defined as a show's host, anchor, correspondent, or recurring guest panelist. Our analysis did not include instances in interviews when a non-media figure brought up climate change without being prompted to do so by a media figure unless the media figure subsequently engaged in discussion of climate change.