Between August 21 and August 22, nearly 15 inches of rain fell over the Dallas/Fort Worth area, leading to severe flooding and at least one death and marking the second-highest rainfall amount ever recorded at the area's airport. This record-breaking, extreme rainfall event was bad enough for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to sign a disaster declaration on Tuesday. But he refused to connect the flooding to climate change, and in reporting on the event, national TV networks largely stayed silent as well.
Over a two-day period from August 22 to 23, news shows on TV networks ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and MSNBC aired 61 combined segments or weather reports on Texas’ extreme rainfall and flooding. Only 10 of them (16%) mentioned climate change.
The rise in average temperatures brought by climate change can strongly affect extreme precipitation events by increasing the intensity of rainfall during storms, climate scientists have found. Such events could become more frequent in the coming decades as the effects of climate change worsen.
In Texas, rainfall intensity has increased by about 7% since 1960. And the risk of extreme precipitation events across the state is increasing even as the Western half of the state has generally seen a flat or declining trend in precipitation totals over the past century, according to a 2021 report by the state’s climatologist.
Texas could experience 30% to 50% more events of extreme rain by 2036 compared to 1950-1999, the report found.
In general, climate change has helped worsen precipitation and flooding worldwide.
NBC was the only corporate broadcast TV news network to mention climate change while reporting on Texas’ extreme precipitation event
NBC mentioned climate change in 4 of its 9 segments (44%) on Texas’ extreme precipitation event. Of those 4, 3 came on their morning news program Today, and one was on its evening news program NBC Nightly News. A good example came from the August 23 edition of the third hour of Today, where both NBC’s Sam Brock and NBC’s weather anchor Al Roker linked the event to climate change.
ABC and CBS, meanwhile, aired 9 segments and 6 segments, respectively. None of these segments connected the event to climate change.
Cable news networks CNN and MSNBC aired only a combined 6 climate segments
MSNBC mentioned climate in only 3 of 11 segments (27%). A good example came during an interview with Beto O’Rourke on the August 23 edition of The ReidOut, where he stated, “We're there for those who are undergoing the worst flooding and the worst rainfall that we've seen in a thousand years in this part of Texas. But, Joy, to your point, these are the consequences of our emissions, our inaction in the face of the consequences of climate change, and our inability to take the right steps, the action necessary to confront this before it's too late.”
CNN mentioned climate change in only 3 of its 26 segments (12%) on Texas’ extreme precipitation event. Of those 3, 2 came on the August 22 and 23 editions of The Lead with Jake Tapper. The other came during the August 23 edition of New Day.
National TV networks do a much better job of connecting climate change to extreme heat and drought events than to other extreme weather
While all extreme weather events are deadly and carry their own climate connections, national TV news has done a much better job this year connecting climate change to extreme heat and drought events than to other extreme weather. Over a five-day period between August 12 and 16, 57% of combined segments on global extreme weather events mentioned climate change. The large majority of these climate mentions came in segments on extreme heat or drought. Additionally, over another five-day period between July 19 and 23, 40% of combined global extreme heat segments mentioned climate change.
Contrast this with extreme precipitation events. Over an eight-day period between June 14 and June 21, these same networks aired 49 combined segments on flooding in Yellowstone National Park. Only 7 of these Yellowstone segments (14%) mentioned climate change.
This discrepancy occurs even though over the past five weeks, there have been five 1,000-year rain events. All of these events have hit abnormally dry areas. Writing in The Washington Post, Matthew Capucci notes that “the weather facing the nation bears the fingerprint of a warming world. While it seems contradictory, both drought and flooding are closely tied to human-driven warming and are altering our environment and how we interact with it.”
These extremely rare precipitation events are not new, either. For example, extreme rainfall in Newark, New Jersey, last year due to Hurricane Ida was a 1,000-year event. Destructive Western European floods in 2020 were a 500-year event. Going further back, 2017’s Hurricane Harvey in Texas was a 1,000-year event. Given these facts, there’s just no excuse for TV news not to be connecting these extreme precipitation events to climate change.
National TV news also shows a bias toward the Northeast legacy media and power corridor when it comes to extreme precipitation events
While these extreme precipitation events are occurring all across the U.S., it’s generally the Northeast U.S., where major media outlets are located, that receives the brunt of coverage. Evlondo Cooper of Media Matters made this point last year while discussing Hurricane Ida:
Unlike coverage of Hurricane Ida’s landfall in Louisiana at the end of August -- which included few climate mentions, discussions about the need to shore up vulnerable infrastructure against the new climate normal, or calls for political action -- national cable news coverage of Ida’s impact on the Northeast was more substantive, and even included in-depth discussions about the need to improve and protect valuable infrastructure on the East Coast.
Cable news coverage on September 2 mentioned that climate change drove Ida’s destructiveness dozens of times, and 26 segments mentioned the storm’s impact on infrastructure or the need for climate resiliency. Throughout the day, cable news hosts featured public officials from impacted communities in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania who made the case for why their areas needed more climate-resilient infrastructure.
It’s the poorest communities, and those that generally have contributed the least to climate change, that will be hit the hardest by climate-fueled weather events. TV networks are willing to make the rain and flooding connection to climate change in places like New York, and they need to do it in places like Texas and the Southeast too.
Greg Abbott is a climate denier. National TV news should not follow his lead on climate silence
Abbott, like many of his fellow Republicans in Texas, is a climate denier. It’s no surprise that he ignored the climate links to the recent flooding event. However, he holds office in a state that, in addition to the recent bout of rain and flooding, has suffered through climate-fueled drought and extreme heat this summer; suffered a polar vortex two years ago that proved that the state's electrical grid is not prepared for climate change; and suffered through the deadly Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
TV networks need to do a better job of linking the climate crisis to extreme weather events and also discussing how we can solve this crisis and better prepare for these events in the future. It should not be following the lead of someone who peddles antiquated climate denial views.
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 and MSNBC for any of the terms “precipitation,” “storm,” “disaster,” or “weather” or any variations of either of the terms “flood” or “rain” within close proximity of any of the terms “Texas,” Dallas,” “Fort Worth,” or “Tarrant” from August 22, 2022, through August 23, 2022.
We counted segments, which we defined as instances when Texas’ historic rain and flooding event was the stated topic of discussion or when we found “significant discussion” of Texas’ rain or flooding event. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the rain or flooding event with one another. We also included weather reports, which we defined as instances when Texas’ rain or flooding event was the stated topic of discussion by a meteorologist in front of a green screen.
We did not include passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker mentioned the rain or flooding event, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the host or anchor promoted a segment about the rain or flooding event coming up later in the broadcast.
We then reviewed each segment or weather report for mentions of the terms “climate” or “global warming.”