In late August a massive, unrelenting heat dome began impacting much of the western United States – breaking numerous temperature records. California is bearing the brunt of the heat, with the state’s power grid stretched to its limit. Climate scientist Daniel Swain called the heat wave in California “essentially the worst September heat wave on record. … By some metrics, it might be one of the worst heat waves on record, period, in any month, given its duration and its extreme magnitude.”
While the size and scope of the heat wave is not being ignored by major national TV news networks – there have been 153 segments and weather reports on the heat and the fires it helped spawn since August 31 – only 18 of the segments (12%) mentioned climate change. Even worse, only 3 of these climate segments mentioned the need for climate action in order to stave off worsening heat waves like this one in the future.
This is a pitiful performance by TV news reporters, especially considering the fact that a year ago they mentioned climate change in a collective 38% of segments on a similar record-breaking heat wave in the Pacific Northwest. There are clear links between the emissions from burning fossil fuels and the growing frequency, duration, and intensity of extreme heat. This record-breaking heat event occurs alongside a devastating flooding event in Pakistan that has displaced millions and can be seen from space, and after a summer of extreme heat and drought events in both Europe and China. The western U.S. heat wave should thus not be treated as a one-off, freak-of-nature incident, but rather contextualized in the larger global climate emergency.
Only 6% of heat wave segments on corporate broadcast TV networks mentioned climate change
Morning and nightly news shows on corporate broadcast TV networks ABC, CBS, and NBC aired a collective 64 segments or weather reports on the western heat wave between August 31 and September 7. Only 4 of these (6%) mentioned climate change.
NBC mentioned climate change in 3 of their 24 segments (13%) on the western U.S. heat and the fires it exacerbated. All mentions came on its flagship evening news program NBC Nightly News. An excellent example comes from the September 6 edition, when the heat was the lead story of the night. Reporter Miguel Almaguer provided context behind just how serious the heat is, noting that it’s “the worst heat wave of its kind in 150 years.” He then followed up by saying, “The suffocating heat dome over the west has only intensified because of climate change. Fall temperatures increasing nearly 3 degrees across the country since 1970, making today's record temperatures five times more likely.”
NBC’s other climate mentions came on the September 1 and September 7 editions.
ABC mentioned climate change in just 1 of its 25 segments (4%) on the western heat wave. This came on the September 7 edition of World News Tonight. This climate segment, along with all 3 of the climate segments on NBC, also mentioned how the heat wave is threatening California’s power grid and could lead to rolling blackouts. As climate change worsens, the toll of extreme heat on power grids worsens as well. This context is particularly important as Fox News and other bad actors have been blaming power grid strain on renewable energy while failing to acknowledge the myriad ways our energy infrastructure is ill-prepared for a rapidly warming climate.
None of ABC’s or NBC’s climate segments mentioned the need for taking action on climate change in order to preserve a more safe and habitable future.
Additionally, none of CBS’ 15 segments on the western heat wave mentioned climate change. Finally, none of the major Sunday morning political shows on these networks on September 4 discussed the heat wave.
When compared to their reporting on extreme heat events from earlier this summer, these networks have collectively taken a huge step backward in their climate reporting. For example, from July 16-18, these networks mentioned climate change in 37% of segments on global extreme heat. They also did a much better job reporting on the historic Pacific Northwest heat wave last summer, mentioning climate change in 27% of segments.
Cable news networks CNN and MSNBC also did a poor job of mentioning climate change
CNN mentioned climate change in only 8 of its 53 segments on the western heat wave (15%). Of these 8 climate segments, only 2 of them addressed the need for climate solutions. One such segment came on the September 2 edition of Don Lemon Tonight, with climate scientist Daniel Swain calling climate change “a global problem that is going to require global solutions.”
A more substantive example came on the September 5 edition of CNN’s At This Hour during an interview with Los Angeles Chief Heat Officer Marta Segura. After being prompted about long-term solutions by anchor Boris Sanchez, Segura noted some of the things that Los Angeles is doing to reduce the city’s own emissions, including making the city go 100% renewable, while acknowledging the need to protect communities that are the most vulnerable and disproportionately impacted by extreme heat.
Only one of CNN’s segments, the September 1 edition of CNN Newsroom, mentioned both climate change and the potential for blackouts or strain on California’s electricity grid.
MSNBC, meanwhile, mentioned climate change in just 5 of its 23 segments (22%). Of these climate segments, just 2 discussed climate solutions. An excellent example came on the September 5 edition of Jose Diaz-Balart Reports during an excellent interview with climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe. After being prompted by host Jose Diaz-Balart, Hayhoe stated, “We need to be cutting out heat-trapping gas emissions as much as possible as soon as possible.” She ended the interview by stating, “It’s not about saving the planet. It’s about saving us.”
A brief mention of solutions was also made by EPA Administrator Michael Regan on the September 7 edition of The ReidOut.
None of MSNBC’s climate segments also mentioned the potential for rolling blackouts.
Collectively, CNN and MSNBC mentioned climate change in 13 of 76 segments (17%). Similar to the broadcast networks, we can see that CNN and MSNBC have taken a step back on climate reporting when comparing this latest showing to their performances earlier in the summer. From July 16-18, these networks mentioned climate change in 32% of segments on global extreme heat.
Fox News made a mockery of the disaster and its causes
Fox aired 13 segments on the heat wave. Only 1 of them – the September 7 edition of Outnumbered – mentioned climate change. Pushing back on the idea that California’s climate policies are responsible for California’s grid problems, Fox News contributor Jessica Tarlov said, “I find it astounding, the last couple of days of conversation about what’s going on have totally missed the most important element of this, which is the impact of climate change and these heat waves and these droughts.” Tarlov also pointed out that California is not able to import as much energy from neighboring western states as it used to, because of the record heat wave and drought affecting the entire region.
Tarlov’s point is correct – Fox News has spent the majority of this heat wave bashing California for its clean energy and climate policies.
When the heat wave first appeared in late August, Fox News mocked California’s recent regulation that bans the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035. This is despite the fact that the regulation is aimed at curbing the greenhouse gas emissions that worsen heat waves such as these.
More recently, Fox News has centered its coverage of the heat wave on the state’s strained power grid, which the network personalities claim is unreliable due to an over-reliance on renewable energy – all the while failing to acknowledge that our energy infrastructure is ill-prepared for these types of climate-fueled events. 6 of Fox’s 13 heat wave segments came on September 7 and featured these kinds of attacks on California’s climate policies, despite the fact that California’s grid held up.
Tucker Carlson Tonight ran a segment essentially blaming clean energy for California’s supposedly failing grid system. This was repeated during Hannity, with Fox reporter Trace Gallagher stating, “There’s a few other problems with California's already-failing grid system. Hydropower is down because water levels are down. Solar power is up which helps during the day, but the state doesn’t have enough battery power to store solar. … That's why most of the time and especially at night, the grid is powered by good old-fashioned fossil fuels.”
Other notable examples from September 7 did not count in the data as heat wave segments because the main focus of the discussion was bashing California’s energy grid and renewable energy. These examples, however, are worth including here as they are illustrative of how Fox covered California’s power grid issues while failing to adequately report on the climate-fueled event that caused them. For example, the September 7 edition of The Five discussed the heat wave with the chyron “Green Energy Nightmare,” with co-host Greg Gutfeld ratcheting up the absurd rhetoric even further by claiming, “It's not climate change that has done this, it's the climate change activists that poisoned the dialogue with hysteria for 30, 40, maybe 50 years. … If you removed the constant hyperbole, somebody like me would have actually been on your side.”
Later that evening, Jesse Watters threw in climate denial on Jesse Watters Primetime, falsely stating that solar power “barely powers anyone’s homes,” and then ended by claiming that “Newsom’s 100% green mandate is about as smart as the COVID mandates.” Finally, Sean Hannity hosted a panel discussion that focused solely on the grid’s problems.
This shows that as the climate-fueled extreme weather disasters ramp up, so too will Fox News’ climate denial and their propensity to do anything to protect fossil fuels. To them, it’s more important to criticize the idea of a cleaner energy future than it is to act concerned about record-breaking temperatures.
There is no excuse for the drop in climate coverage while disasters are occurring nonstop
We’ve seen a summer of intense and deadly weather disasters around the globe, with The New York Times writing that “climate change has made extreme weather increasingly normal.” Networks should be clarifying the link between climate change and these disasters, not obscuring it. NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus perhaps explained the media’s silence on this issue best:
With hurricane and wildfire season still ahead of us, coupled with the numerous weather disasters happening simultaneously around the globe, TV news anchors and reporters still have time to correct this mistake and give climate coverage the urgency that it deserves.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original episodes of 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 as well as all original programming on CNN, Fox New Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “heat,” “heat wave,” “temperatures,” “hot,” “hotter,” “hottest,” “drought,” “fire,” “wildfire,” or ”wild fire" within close proximity of any of the terms “West,” “Southwest,” “California,” “Arizona,” “Oregon,” “Washington,” “Idaho,” “Arizona,” “Labor Day,” “Los Angeles,” “Las Vegas,” “Phoenix,” “San Diego,” “Sacramento,” “Reno,” or “National Weather Service” from August 31, 2022, through September 7, 2022.
We included segments, which we defined as instances when the western U.S. extreme heat was the stated topic of discussion or when we found “significant discussion” of any of extreme heat. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multi-topic segment discussed any of these extreme weather events with one another. We also included weather reports, which we defined as instances when the extreme heat 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 extreme heat, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the host or anchor promoted a segment about extreme heat coming up later in the broadcast.
We then reviewed each segment or weather report for mentions of the terms “climate” or “global warming,” and if any segment also referenced blackouts or potential power grid problems. Within segments that referenced climate change or global warming, we also reviewed whether any speaker mentioned the need to take action on climate change or reduce carbon emissions in order to fight climate change.