How TV coverage of climate solutions has evolved in the past 5 years
In order to get people motivated to combat climate change, it is extremely important for climate change reporting to discuss solutions to this challenge and actions that can be taken to prepare for it. However, corporate broadcast TV news coverage of climate solutions has historically been poor — in 2017 and 2018, when Media Matters began tracking solutions coverage, less than one-fifth of climate coverage on nightly and Sunday news shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday touched upon climate solutions. In 2021, these networks performed much better, as climate solutions made up 34% of climate coverage on nightly and Sunday news shows, though still less than 2019 when solution coverage peaked at 37% of total climate reporting.
In general, discussion of solutions should happen in tandem with the myriad climate impacts that make up the bulk of climate reporting on broadcast TV news. Coverage should center around solutions that are at scale with what is needed to reduce carbon emissions and avoid, or at least vet, solutions pushed by corporations and the fossil fuel industry, which often do little to tackle the root cause of warming.
For example, job creation and transitioning to clean energy were some of the biggest drivers of solutions coverage in 2021. In the five years that Media Matters has been analyzing climate solutions coverage on broadcast TV networks, the highest quality of climate coverage came in 2019 and 2021. And it was certainly a vast improvement over 2017, 2018, and 2020, when coverage was shallow and generally focused on presidential climate initiatives.
The highest number of climate solutions segments were aired in 2019 and 2021
In 2019, 37% of all climate coverage on corporate broadcast TV nightly and Sunday political news shows (52 out of 139 segments) featured climate solutions, making it the best-performing year for these news shows in terms of percentage of climate solutions discussion. The second best-performing year was 2021, in which 34% of all climate coverage on corporate broadcast TV nightly and Sunday political news shows (81 out of 241 segments) featured climate solutions. Both of these years outperform 2020’s figures (29% — 18 out of 63 segments) and the combined figures of 2017 and 2018 (19% — 35 out of 187 segments).
Media Matters began including morning news show data in our analysis of climate solutions segments in 2020. As morning news show programs have a longer running time than nightly and Sunday political news shows, there were many more relevant segments aired on these programs. Morning news shows featured climate solutions in 29% of climate segments in 2021 (106 out of 363 segments) and in 28% of climate segments in 2020 (45 out of 158 segments). When adding these figures with data from other news programming (nightly and Sunday political shows), we found 31% of all climate coverage in 2021 (187 out of 604 climate segments) featured climate solutions, while 29% of climate coverage (63 out of 221 climate segments) featured climate solutions in 2020.
CBS was the best-performing network in 2021 in terms of quantity of climate solutions coverage
In 2021, CBS was the best-performing network in terms of both the number of climate solutions segments it aired and the percentage of these segments compared to overall climate segments. The network’s morning news, nightly news, and Sunday morning news programs covered climate solutions in 81 of its 220 total climate segments (37%). In 2020, 20 out of their 73 total climate segments were solutions segments (27%). The 81 climate solutions segments CBS aired in 2021 are the highest number of segments by a single corporate broadcast TV network since Media Matters added morning news shows to its climate solutions analysis in 2020.
In 2019, 29 out of their 74 climate segments on nightly news and Sunday political news shows were solutions segments (39%); in 2017 and 2018, just 13 of their 82 combined climate segments were solutions segments (16%). CBS also aired the highest number of climate solutions segments when compared to its network counterparts in 2019.
On NBC, 54 out of 196 total climate segments in 2021 were solutions segments (28%), making it second best to CBS in terms of the number of climate solutions segments it aired and the percentage of these segments compared to overall climate segments. However, from 2017 to 2020, NBC had the highest percentage of climate solutions segments compared to CBS and ABC. In 2020, 27 out of 94 climate segments were solutions segments (29%). In 2019, 13 out of 32 segments were solutions segments (41%); in 2017 and 2018, 15 of their 61 climate segments were solutions segments (25%). Only nightly news and Sunday morning political shows were analyzed between 2017 and 2019.
On ABC, 49 out of 175 climate segments were solutions segments in 2021 (28%), making it the network’s best year ever in terms of the number of climate solutions segments it aired and the percentage of these segments compared to overall climate segments. In 2020, just 13 of its 50 climate segments discussed solutions (26%); in 2019, 7of 29 climate segments were solutions segments (24%); in 2017 and 2018, there were 7 solutions segments out of 44 climate segments (16%). Only nightly news and Sunday morning political shows were analyzed between 2017 and 2019.
Overall, the percentage of climate solutions segments on nightly news and Sunday morning political shows in 2021 are just short of the 2019 figures, when these programs covered solutions in 52 of 139 total climate segments (37%). That year, climate activism, the Green New Deal, and climate’s inclusion in the campaign platform of the Democratic presidential candidates were big drivers of solutions segments. Still, though, networks have come a long way in covering solutions since 2017.
The most discussed climate solutions in 2021 were job creation through climate initiatives and electrifying transportation
Reflective of the Biden administration’s strategy of framing climate action as an opportunity for job creation and focusing on initiatives to transform the transportation sector, clean energy job creation was mentioned 24 times across corporate broadcast TV’s morning, evening, and Sunday news shows in 2021, followed by electric vehicles and electrifying transportation, which was mentioned 20 times.
A good example of a segment on clean energy job creation occurred on the April 22 edition of CBS Mornings. The segment dealt with President Joe Biden’s plans for net zero emissions by 2035 and the ways offshore wind can help. CBS' senior national and environmental correspondent Ben Tracy spoke with the owner of a welding company in Baltimore, who noted that because of the offshore wind project in Maryland, “It allowed us to purchase [a] 20,000 square foot facility, and it allowed us to create eight full-time jobs. … This was real money.”
Additionally, on the November 1 edition of Good Morning America, ABC meteorologist Ginger Zee scaled a wind turbine in Pennsylvania, where she noted, “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, wind turbine service technician jobs are going to increase by 68% by the year 2030. That makes them the second fastest-growing occupation in the United States.” Zee then spoke with a worker in the wind industry who previously held a job in the oil and gas industry.
In 2020, clean energy job creation was mentioned just 4 times. (Media Matters did not code for clean energy jobs from 2017 to 2019.)
Electric vehicles and general mentions of electrifying transportation occurred 20 times on broadcast TV news climate segments in 2021. An excellent solutions segment example on EV’s comes from the April 20 edition of NBC’s Today. Al Roker interviewed General Motors Co. President Mark Reuss about GM’s EV plans and the company’s plans to roll out charging infrastructure in order to keep pace with the demand of EV’s.
While electric vehicles as a climate solution did not come up in 2020, they were mentioned 6 times in 2019.
In 2020, direct and indirect references to Biden’s climate plan made up 32% of all solutions coverage, with the majority of these references airing on Sunday morning political shows. In 2019, adaptation or mitigation efforts made up 56% of solutions coverage. Adaptation segments generally focused on how animals and communities are adapting to a warmer planet, while mitigation segments included the aforementioned electric vehicle segments, as well as varying discussions on carbon taxes and carbon capture. Additionally, climate activism was mentioned 12 times in 2019.
In 2017 and 2018, then-President Donald Trump drove over half of the solutions segments because much of the media coverage on climate change in the early days of the Trump presidency was centered around him. For example, 79% of broadcast TV news coverage of climate change in 2017 featured climate actions or statements by the Trump administration. The majority of mentioned solutions to climate change in 2017 and 2018 did so in response to statements or actions from Trump or his administration, including his announcement about withdrawing from the Paris climate accord and his rollbacks of climate regulations.
But in 2021, there was an uptick in the breadth of types of climate solutions discussed.
Other notable solutions discussed in 2021 included climate agreements made at COP26, clean and renewable energy, and adaptation
Climate agreements made at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference were referenced 19 times in 2021. Many of these were just general agreements made at COP26 to reduce carbon emissions.
References to clean energy were made 17 times, and varying forms of renewable energy were mentioned 15 times.
Adaptation was mentioned 14 times. Other notable solutions mentioned included United States’ and other countries’ plans to cut emissions by 50% by 2030 (7 times); various country pledges to go net zero by 2050 (4 times); billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates’ book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster (3 times); methane reduction (3 times); and tree planting (2 times).
The quality of solutions segments in 2021 was better than 2019, which was a comparable year in terms of percentage of climate segments focusing on solutions. For example, while renewable energy played a large role in solutions coverage in 2019, there was little discussion about specific types of renewable energy. Additionally, while the Green New Deal drove a lot of solution coverage in 2019, it was mostly discussed in a political context.
The quality of solutions segments in 2020, as well as 2017 and 2018, was a mixed bag.
Corporate broadcast TV news continues to feature fringe and false solutions
Continuing a trend from previous years, morning, nightly, and Sunday programming of corporate broadcast TV networks gave airtime to fringe or false solutions. Fringe solutions are those that are generally unproven or prohibitively expensive like carbon capture and sequestration. False solutions are those that would not make any meaningful difference such as carbon offsets, or represent questionable strategies for solving climate change as evident in many corporate net zero pledges. False solutions are also derived from industry or Republican talking points — like fracked natural gas as a bridge fuel and “clean coal.”
For example, the July 4 edition of NBC Nightly News focused on the environmental impact of bitcoin mining. The segment featured Jeff Kirt, the CEO of Greenidge Generation Holdings (which mines bitcoin), who noted that the company is actually carbon neutral because they buy credits to offset the mining emissions.
There are many problems with carbon offsets, which are defined as a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions “that is used to compensate for emissions that occur elsewhere.” For one, it does not reduce the carbon emissions coming from the primary polluter. Second, as Lisa Song at ProPublica notes in recent research, “I found that carbon credits hadn’t offset the amount of pollution they were supposed to, or they had brought gains that were quickly reversed or that couldn’t be accurately measured to begin with. … Ultimately, the polluters got a guilt-free pass to keep emitting CO2.”
The July 21 edition of NBC’s Today featured a discussion on Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ recent space trip, with a note that his rocket engine was generally clean burning. This segment ignored the other absolutely terrible effects of private space travel on the environment.
Mentions of “innovation” as a broad climate solution, or specifically investing in innovation, occurred four times. The problem with the blanket phrase “innovation” is that it has been pushed as a climate solution by conservatives for years, and it never involves the key thing needed to solve climate change: rapidly reduce carbon emissions. As Dave Roberts, formerly of Vox, wrote back in 2019:
In very broad strokes, Republicans are correct that innovation is central to climate policy. Seen from a certain angle, the climate challenge is simply the challenge of scaling up and substituting clean technologies for dirtier ones.
We know how to accelerate technology development and innovation. But it has nothing to do with the strategy Republicans like Barrasso favor, which is to protect incumbent industries from any standards that might in any way constrict them, taxes that might in any way cost them, or laws that might in any way disturb them — and instead subsidize their efforts to remain viable.
Previous years also had fringe solutions segments. For example, in 2020, all three morning news shows in our study made at least one reference to the Bezos Earth Fund — continuing these networks’ obsession with high-emitting billionaires addressing climate change. In 2019, even though the Green New Deal drove a lot of coverage, it was rarely discussed as an actual climate solution. There were also multiple incidents in 2019 of network anchors asking climate questions that have been framed and utilized by the fossil fuel industry and Republicans.
PBS once again leads the way in terms of climate solutions coverage
The weekday edition of PBS NewsHour aired more climate segments than its nightly news show counterparts on ABC, NBC, and CBS in both 2019 and 2020. 2021 was no different, as the program touched on climate solutions in 64 of its 151 total climate segments (42%). In 2020, NewsHour covered solutions in 27 of its 58 total climate segments (47%); in 2019, the program covered solutions in 51 of its 121 climate segments (42%).
As NewsHour is an hour-long show, the program has more time than its ABC, CBS, and NBC counterparts -- which run for 30 minutes each -- to discuss solutions more in-depth.
The January 27 edition offered three climate segments during which solutions were discussed in-depth: one on Biden’s climate executive orders, an interview with White House national climate adviser Gina McCarthy on how the actions can help fight climate change, and an interview with two mayors on what these orders mean for the health of their communities and economic benefits to them. Clean energy job creation and actions like capping abandoned oil and gas wells were discussed.
Renewable energy was mentioned numerous times, including in the April 13 edition, which looked at a Florida community trying to go 100% solar in order to reap economic benefits.
Electric vehicles were also covered, including on the August 5 edition, which had a nine-minute segment on the White House’s push for more electric vehicles.
The August 9 edition featured climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer, who in discussing a grim report from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, noted that there is a way we can avoid a future made worse by climate change:
On the other hand, if it [the world community] gets serious about rapid immediate reduction and large reductions of the emissions of gases, we could produce a notable slowing of the warming within 20 years, now I don't know and I don't think anybody could say with any sureness whether we're going to make the one and a half or two degree limit, stay out of the danger zone but even if we get out of the danger zone, the quicker we get out of it, the better. So this is not — in the end, this is not a problem that the technological or scientific one. It's a political one, basically.
In the future, it would be good to see corporate broadcast networks provide this sort of commentary in climate segments. We already know how to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, but getting this information out to viewers is as important as describing the effects of climate change. Talking about climate solutions is an important part of climate communication — people are more likely to be inspired through hopeful communication, rather than doom and gloom communication, in order to take action. It is thus imperative that corporate broadcast TV networks communicate climate solutions to their viewers.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the Nexis database for ABC’s Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and This Week; CBS’ Mornings, Evening News, and Face the Nation; NBC’s Today, Nightly News, and Meet the Press; Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Fox News Sunday; and PBS’ NewsHour for any of the terms or any derivations of any of the 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,” “green new deal,” “climate conference,” “climate plan,” “COP 26,” “carbon emissions,” “greenhouse gases,” or “net zero” from January 1, 2021, through December 31, 2021.
We included segments, which we defined as instances when climate change was the stated topic of discussion, and substantial mentions, which we defined as instances when a segment on any topic included at least one paragraph or a block of uninterrupted speech by a host, anchor, or correspondent about climate change. We also included passing mentions, which we defined as instances of a speaker mentioning climate change in a network correspondent segment if the context of the segment was clearly about a climate, energy, or an environmental issue.
We then reviewed the identified climate segments, substantial mentions, and passing mentions for whether they included discussion or statements about climate solutions, actions, policies, regulations, or technologies intended to mitigate the effects of climate change, reduce carbon emissions, or create the political or economic environment necessary to transition away from fossil fuels.