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National TV news largely ignores the link between climate change and the deluge devastating California

  • Beginning on New Year’s Eve, heavy rains resulting from two distinct weather events have inundated parts of California, breaching a levee, causing flooding and power outages, and yielding multiple fatalities. Climate scientist Daniel Swain explained that the warmer atmosphere resulting from climate change means these weather systems can hold exponentially more precipitation.

    According to The Washington Post, “While storms like this do periodically occur, heavy precipitation rates are made more likely by the effects of human-induced climate change, which is warming the atmosphere.”

    However, a review of coverage by national TV news from December 31 through January 4 of the first atmospheric river that hit California and the second atmospheric river, which triggered a “bomb cyclone,” found that with one exception, cable news networks — CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC — and national broadcast networks — ABC, CBS, and NBC — failed to link these events to our warming climate.

    TV News failed to explain how climate change is making precipitation events, like those that have flooded parts of California, more severe and more frequent

    Print and online news sources have contextualized the extreme weather events devastating California:

    • Axios noted in its report of the storms pummeling California that “climate change is adding even more moisture to atmospheric rivers, enabling them to dump higher rain and snow totals.”
    • The New York Times published a January 3 article titled “How Climate Change Is Shaping California's Winter Storms” which specifically addressed the role of a warming climate in the severity of the storms.
    • included research by The Center for Western Weather and Extremes, which warned about the future of storms if climate change continues unabated, noting, “Flooding damage from atmospheric rivers in the West could double or triple by the end of the century.”
    • The Associated Press led with climate change in its January 4 article on the storms beginning the report: “In a world getting used to extreme weather, 2023 is starting out more bonkers than ever and meteorologists are saying it’s natural weather weirdness with a bit of help from human-caused climate change.”

    But TV news largely failed to explain how climate change is fueling these storms.  

    Of the 60 segments aired by national TV news networks from December 31 through January 4, 2023, only 1 mentioned climate change. 

    Cable news — CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC — aired a total of 33 combined segments on the California rain. CNN covered the storms the most, with 24 segments, followed by Fox News with 8 and MSNBC with a single segment. CNN was the only network to air a segment linking climate change to the storms impacting California. 

    In an exchange between CNN anchor Kate Bolduan and San Francisco Mayor London Breed on the January 4 edition of At This Hour, the two discussed the ongoing impacts of climate change on California, including its historic drought and worsening wildfires, and concluded that preparation for the climate crisis is not a future exercise but an imperative for a crisis that is unfolding now.

  • Video file

    Citation From the January 4, 2023, edition of CNN's At This Hour

  • National broadcast news ABC, CBS, and NBC aired a combined 27 segments on California storms during the same time period. None of ABC’s 11 segments, NBC’s 9, or CBS’ 7 segments mentioned climate change. 

    TV News must stop relegating climate-fueled extreme events to a season – they are now happening year-round

    Extreme weather has become a year-round phenomenon not limited to the heat and megastorms that usually peak over a few months of the year. In 2022, wildfires torched Texas, months before peak U.S. wildfire summer season, destructive unseasonable tornadoes caused chaos in New Orleans and across parts of Texas, and an ice shelf the size of Rome collapsed in Antarctica after temperatures reached 70 degrees above normal in March. Even the hurricane that leveled Florida hit later in the season than storms of that magnitude usually do.

    These supercharged winter storms should also be presented as an impact of our increasingly warming planet. However, climate coverage is still concentrated around the summer and fall months that have traditionally constituted peak extreme weather season, with events outside of this period often left isolated instead of covered as part of the broader landscape of global climate events. The scope of how climate change impacts weather events is expanding, and TV news coverage needs to expand with it. 

  • Methodology

    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, MSNBC, and Fox News Channel for the term “bomb cyclone” and any variations of either of the terms “flood” or “rain” from December 31, 2022, through January 4, 2023.

    We included segments, which we defined as instances when the recent western U.S. extreme rain and flooding events were the stated topic of discussion or when we found “significant discussion” of the events. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the recent western U.S. extreme weather events with one another. We did not include passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker mentioned the events, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the host or anchor promoted a segment about the events coming up later in the broadcast.

    We then reviewed each segment or weather report for mentions of the terms “climate” or “global warming.”