A string of destructive wildfires spread across parts of California in October. Broadcast and cable TV news shows have been quick to cover these fires, airing hundreds of segments over a 12-day period from October 21 to November 1. However, the number of climate change mentions in wildfire segments across these shows is pitifully low.
Major morning and nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC aired a combined 243 segments on the wildfires, but only eight of them, or 3.3%, mentioned climate change. These broadcast numbers are actually worse than the coverage of last year’s deadly and destructive California wildfires. As wildfires ravaged parts of the state in November 2018, broadcast TV news shows mentioned climate change in only 3.7% of overall wildfire segments.
Cable news shows in 2019 did not fare much better — out of a combined 419 wildfire segments aired on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, only 20 of them, or 4.8%, mentioned climate change.
It is clear that the warming climate is increasing the frequency and intensity of wildfires in California. Burned area due to wildfires has increased fivefold between 1972 and 2018, and the average wildfire season length is over two full months longer. California has warmed roughly three times as much as the global average in the past century, making many parts of the state’s land more prone to wildfires. In fact, according to Climate Central, “human-caused climate change has been responsible for more than half the increase in fuel aridity” since the 1970s, resulting in drier and more flammable vegetation that is easier to burn.
Research has also been done into the connection between climate change and the strong Santa Ana winds that help fan the wildfires. Climate scientist Daniel Swain stated, “While there’s not much evidence at this point of a direct link between climate change and changes in offshore wind patterns, there is evidence that climate trends are increasing the likelihood that such winds coincide with dangerously dry vegetation conditions, leading to increased wildfire risk.”
Earlier this fall, it looked like California would avoid another bad wildfire season, but now there is a heightened chance for large fires for the rest of 2019. Continued greenhouse gas emissions will increase the wildfire risk for much of the region, making this is all part of a “new normal” that California residents will have to grapple with in the future.
Just 3% of broadcast news segments mentioned climate change
Morning and nightly news shows on the corporate broadcast networks aired a combined 243 segments on the California wildfires from October 21 to November 1, and only eight of them -- or 3.3% -- mentioned climate change.
CBS aired 76 segments on the wildfires and mentioned climate change just four times (5%). Three of these mentions were made by CBS’ climate change and weather contributor Jeff Berardelli. One example comes from the October 26 episode of CBS This Morning:
In his weather report, Berardelli notes that because of a warming climate, California’s fire season is longer, the area burned has increased, and the risk of wildfires has gone up.
Berardelli used similar language mentioning climate change in weather reports during both the October 26 and October 27 episodes of CBS Evening News. The network’s final climate mention came on the October 29 episode of CBS This Morning, when correspondent Jonathan Vigliotti said that fire evacuations and power shut-offs in California’s wine country were occurring “as this state faces a climate crisis.”
NBC aired 86 wildfire segments and mentioned climate change in just four of them (4.7%). All four of these climate mentions came from weathercaster and Today co-host Al Roker, including a notable exchange during the third hour of the October 22 episode of Today. Speaking about a new climate change exhibit at Columbia University, co-host Sheinelle Jones mentioned recent extreme weather events that can bring awareness to the issue and referenced the California wildfires. Roker then added, “Climate change makes it possible for these wild swings in weather to the point that you don’t have a wildfire season anymore; it’s just -- it’s just there.”
While giving a weather report on the October 25 episode of Today, Roker used information from Climate Central to show how climate change has affected wildfire season in California:
NBC’s additional climate mentions came during the third hour of the Today show on October 29 and November 1. During both of these mentions, Roker noted that California is now experiencing longer wildfire seasons due to climate change.
ABC aired 81 segments on the wildfires from October 21 to November 1, and not a single one of them mentioned climate change. ABC has failed to mention climate change at all in some of its other recent reporting on extreme weather events, and this year’s wildfires are no different.
Additionally, none of the major Sunday morning news shows on ABC, CBS, or NBC aired a segment on the wildfires on the one Sunday that fell during this period, October 27.
As a whole, ABC, CBS, and NBC did not improve upon their already dismal California wildfire coverage from last year. Over a five-day period in November 2018, climate change was mentioned in just 3.7% of their total California wildfire coverage compared to an average of 3.3% in the larger period studied in 2019. The networks’ failure to improve upon such low numbers does a disservice to their viewers at a time when climate change is affecting extreme weather events more and more.
Outside of the corporate networks, PBS NewsHour mentioned climate change in three of its 12 segments (25%). The October 24 episode featured a clip of California Gov. Gavin Newsom admonishing utility PG&E for its role in the wildfires, stating, “It’s about corporate greed meeting climate change.” On the October 25 episode, reporter William Brangham warned, “If high winds continue, it could turn into the largest blackout yet for Californians -- yet another new normal for a state grappling with the growing impacts of climate change.” On the October 30 episode, correspondent Stephanie Sy interviewed Michael Wara of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. He linked climate change to the fires, saying: “The emerging science on the issue of these kind of dangerous late fall events is that, as the climate warms, we’re likely to see more and more of these very dangerous moments in the late fall, where it’s very difficult to control fires.”
Less than 5% of cable news segments mentioned climate change
Shows airing between 4 a.m. and midnight on the three major cable networks produced a combined 419 segments on the California wildfires, and only 20 of them -- 4.8% -- mentioned climate change.
CNN mentioned climate change in 12 of its 141 segments on the wildfires (8.5%). Five of these mentions came from weathercasters. On October 26, both the 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. hour of CNN Newsroom aired National Weather Service meteorologist Brian Garcia talking about climate change in relation to the fires: “I don't necessarily like to call it ‘the new normal,’ because the new normal implies we've hit an equilibrium of some kind and we haven't. … We're going to continue to warm and continue to see the impacts of this changing climate.”
In a separate video during these same hours, CNN weather anchor Derek Van Dam mentioned that the average number of large wildfires has increased in California, calling it a “fingerprint of climate change."
Later that morning on New Day, CNN meteorologist Ivan Cabrera gave his take on the fires: “Each year they just keep getting worse and worse as we talk about our climate crisis here and the droughts that are prolonged and these conditions that are typical for California -- the winds are. But when you have dry vegetation, you have certainly what we need to fuel the fires.”
CNN chief climate correspondent Bill Weir also connected the wildfires to climate change in five segments, all of which aired after October 30. He invoked the phrase “climate crisis” in four of these segments. CNN’s two other climate mentions occurred during the 8:30 a.m. edition of New Day on October 25 and the 6 p.m. edition of The Situation Room on October 29.
MSNBC mentioned climate change in just five of its 99 wildfire segments (5%), all of which aired after October 29. A great example of how to cover the issue came from co-anchor Ali Velshi on the October 29 episode of MSNBC Live With Velshi and Ruhle, when he used Climate Central data to show how climate change has affected the wildfires. In another example, former Obama climate aide Jake Levine and The Uninhabitable Earth author David Wallace-Wells discussed climate change’s role in fueling the wildfires on the November 1 episode of MSNBC Live with Katy Tur. The segment lasted over eight minutes.
MSNBC’s other climate mentions were brief and came on the October 29 episode of All In with Chris Hayes, the October 31 episode of MSNBC Live with Velshi and Ruhle, and the November 1 episode of MTP Daily.
Fox News aired 179 segments on the wildfires, the most out of the cable networks. Just three of them — 1.7% — mentioned climate change. And similar to Fox’s coverage of other major climate-related issues, the segments mostly mocked or downplayed climate change when talking about the fires. Two of these segments, both on Fox & Friends, downplayed the role of climate change in the wildfires. On October 30, Chuck DeVore of the industry-backed Texas Public Policy Foundation claimed that “President Trump was right about this last year when he criticized California for not properly maintaining their forests.” On November 1, New York Post writer Miranda Devine claimed that California is trying “to be seen as pure on climate change,” so the state forced utility PG&E to generate more electricity from renewables because of “their ideology.” The other climate mention came during the October 29 episode of Fox and Friends First.
One positive note amid this majorly lacking climate coverage is the number of segments that featured meteorologists talking about climate change. The public has a high degree of trust in TV meteorologists, and studies show that TV weathercasters can play an important role in getting public opinion to shift on climate change. It's great that weathercasters like Roker and Berardelli are talking about climate change in the context of the wildfires. Another way to start normalizing discussion of climate change is to talk about it during non-news segments. The candid discussions on Today’s third hour are a good step in that direction.
However, with climate change increasingly impacting the California wildfires, there is really no excuse for national news shows to downplay or outright ignore it in their wildfire reports. Good on some of the meteorologists for mentioning climate change during this 12-day period, but overall, these outlets must do better.
Media Matters searched transcripts on the Nexis and iQ media databases for the term “California” within the same transcripts as variations of “wildfire” or “fire” on the three broadcast news networks' morning and evening news shows and Sunday political talk shows; PBS NewsHour; and original programming on the three major cable networks, CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC, from October 21 through November 1, 2019. We then searched within those transcripts for the terms “global warming” or “climate change.”
Segments included news headline rundowns which mentioned the wildfires within announcements of top stories of the day. We also counted weather reports which included mentions of the wildfires within a meteorologist’s report or a general discussion of weather. We did not count teasers or rebroadcasts.
Charts by Ceci Freed of Media Matters.