Fifteen years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita obliterated the Gulf Coast and a mere three years after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey, broadcast TV news is still failing to report or analyze how climate change -- driven by public policy choices that worsen the environmental crisis-- is fueling record-breaking storms like Hurricane Laura and driving catastrophic extreme weather events across the country.
- Corporate broadcast TV outlets — ABC, CBS, and NBC — aired a combined 50 segments about Hurricane Laura from August 24 to 9 a.m. on August 27.
- None of the segments connected the historic storm to climate change.
- Only one segment, aired during the August 26 episode of CBS Evening New, mentioned the storms in connection with the ongoing Republican National Convention, which began August 24.
Climate change is fueling storms like Hurricane Laura
Climate change is intensifying storms. But over three and half days of coverage of the historic Hurricane Laura by corporate broadcast TV outlets -- ABC, CBS, and NBC -- this link was never made.
Hurricane Laura made landfall near Cameron, Louisiana, in the early morning of August 27 as a Category 4 storm, with maximum winds of up to 150 miles per hour. It is the most powerful hurricane to hit Louisiana in more than 160 years, and the strongest August hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. According to The Weather Channel, Laura was expected to bring “catastrophic storm surge, flooding rainfall and damaging wind impacts to parts of Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coasts into Thursday.” Indeed, up to 18 inches of rain are expected locally, and 9 feet of storm surge was recorded in parts of southwest Louisiana. Warnings of an “unsurvivable” storm surge were given by the National Hurricane Center before the storm made landfall and could reach “up to 40 miles inland.”
As of midday on August 27, over 875,000 people were without power and the hurricane had caused at least four reported deaths. The storm also led to a chemical facility accident near Lake Charles, Louisiana.
Laura’s rapid intensification -- it was just a tropical storm with 65 miles per hour wind gusts on Tuesday -- is part of a growing trend of recent extreme hurricanes that scientists are linking to climate change. As The New York Times’ David Leonhardt reports:
The warming of the planet doesn’t seem to have increased the frequency of hurricanes. But it has increased their severity, scientists say. Storms draw their energy from the ocean, and warmer water provides more energy. Warmer air, in turn, can carry more water, increasing rainfall and flooding.
Since the 1990s, the frequency of extreme hurricanes — either Category 4 or 5 — has roughly doubled in the Atlantic Ocean. No single storm is solely a result of climate change, of course. Yet climate change is leading to more storms like Laura.
Reporting on the extensive damage caused by recent extreme hurricanes, The Associated Press’ Seth Borenstein also mentions climate change as a factor, noting:
America and the world are getting more frequent and bigger multibillion dollar tropical catastrophes like Hurricane Laura, which is menacing the U.S. Gulf Coast, because of a combination of increased coastal development, natural climate cycles, reductions in air pollution and man-made climate change, experts say.
Climate change is influencing hurricanes in other ways, too, including worsening storm precipitation and storm surge. With climate scientists finding that ocean warming is accelerating much faster than previously thought, intense hurricanes like Laura will become more common in the future if we continue to burn fossil fuels.
Broadcast news programs should connect President Trump climate inaction to Hurricane Laura
The Trump administration has continuously obstructed efforts to fight the climate crisis -- a fact that broadcast news coverage of Hurricane Laura has failed to point out during the RNC this week.
Some speakers at the Republican National Convention have offered “prayers” to those in the path of this unprecedented storm, while others have blasted and mocked Democrats and the Biden campaign for having a climate plan. But broadcast TV news coverage of Hurricane Laura failed to connect these statements to the Trump administration’s record of downplaying the climate crisis and protecting dying fossil fuel industries -- a recurring issue in media coverage of the president’s response to climate change.
President Donald Trump, who will speak at the RNC tonight during a global climate emergency, has called climate change a “hoax”; dismissed the science linking a warming planet and supercharged storms; pulled the U.S. out of the global commitment to address the crisis; and has systematically dismantled federal regulations intended to slow the overheating of our planet, all while pushing for greater dependency on fossil fuels.
The science on the connection between climate and supercharged storms, like Hurricane Laura, is indisputable. The dangers of climate inaction and denial are equally clear. Hurricane Laura is not just a weather phenomenon -- it is what scientists have been warning about for years. The media should shine a bright light on decision-makers who are failing to heed those warnings and taking actions that push us further into climate chaos -- The best time to do so is when climate disasters are occurring.
In the final night of Republican National Convention coverage, it’s time for broadcast TV news to talk about climate
Despite the imminent landfall of a catastrophic storm, the Republican National Convention resumed on Wednesday night, and in the face of tragedy and recovery, it will continue again tonight with Trump delivering a speech from the White House lawn -- more than a thousand miles away from the communities across Louisiana that are beginning the long road to recovery.
Tonight, Trump will likely acknowledge the tragedy wrought by Hurricane Laura, but it is unlikely that he will discuss the role our increasingly warming world had in creating it. It will be up to the media to make that connection between extreme weather, climate change, and his failure to respond to the crisis.
Media Matters searched transcripts for morning and evening news programs on ABC, CBS, and NBC in the Nexis, SnapStream, and Kinetiq databases for the terms “hurricane,” “storm,” or “Laura" from August 24 through 9 a.m. EDT on August 27, 2020.
We reviewed each transcript or video for discussion about climate change or the Republican National Convention, which began August 24, to determine if the program connected Hurricane Laura to climate change or the Republican National Convention.
We included as segments when Hurricane Laura was the stated topic of discussion or when we found “significant discussion” of Hurricane Laura in segments about other topics. We defined significant discussion as two or more speakers discussing Hurricane Laura with one another.