4% of segments_wildfires Hawaii_climate change

Media Matters / Andrea Austria

Research/Study Research/Study

Only 4% of national TV news segments about the catastrophic wildfires in Hawaii mentioned climate change

Climate's connection to Hawaii's devastating wildfires was again the missing story in major TV news’ extreme weather coverage

During coverage of Hawaii's catastrophic wildfires, which have devastated the historic town of Lahaina and led to the displacement of hundreds of families, the destruction of dozens of businesses and landmarks, and the deaths of at least 55 individuals, major TV news networks largely ignored clear climate signals linking this devastating, historic extreme weather event to global warming.

Over a two-day period beginning August 9, a Media Matters analysis found:

  • National TV news broadcasters — ABC, CBS, and NBC — and major cable news networks — CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News — covered the Hawaii wildfires for 11 hours and 45 minutes across 209 segments.
  • Only 4% of the 209 segments and weathercasts about the Hawaii wildfires across national TV news mentioned the role climate change played in the wildfires.
  • Major cable news networks – CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC – aired 10 hours and 26 minutes of coverage across 174 segments or weathercasts about the Hawaii wildfires. Only 8 segments mentioned the connection between the wildfires and climate change; MSNBC mentioned it 5 times, and CNN mentioned it 3. 
  • Corporate broadcast networks – ABC, CBS, and NBC – aired a combined 1 hour and 20 minutes across 35 segments or weathercasts that discussed the Hawaii wildfires. None of the segments mentioned climate change.
  • The Hawaii wildfires, which were driven by global warming, are lethal and unprecedented

  • The deadly conflagration that ravaged the Hawaiian town of Lahaina and claimed at least 55 lives is yet another stark reminder of the severe and complex impacts of global warming. The wildfire in Hawaii was initiated by a grim confluence of natural factors, with Hurricane Dora playing a central role. Though hundreds of miles off the coast, the storm's ferocious wind gusts acted like a bellows, igniting and spreading the flames with devastating speed. While the wind speeds from Hurricane Dora were the immediate trigger, however, the underlying vulnerability stemmed from Hawaii's drying landscape. Invasive grasses, drying vegetation, and a reduction in irrigation after the closure of sugar cane farms have all contributed to the tinderbox conditions.

    Climate change has been a significant contributor to these underlying conditions in Hawaii, creating a more vulnerable and volatile environment. The decline in rainfall, with selected monitoring sites showing 31% lower precipitation in the wet season since 1990, can be partly attributed to climate-induced shifts in weather patterns, including the effects of weaker La Niñas. Rising temperatures, linked to the global warming trend, have further dried the vegetation, and the changing paths of large storms have reduced rainfall on the islands. Warmer conditions also increase the likelihood of large storms like Hurricane Dora gaining strength. 

    Together, these climate-driven factors have transformed the landscape of the Hawaiian islands and allowed devastating wildfires to take hold and spread more easily. As climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe poignantly stated: “Climate change doesn't usually start the fires; but it intensifies them, increasing the area they burn + making them much more dangerous.”

  • National TV news continues to miss the larger climate story

  • Across both broadcast and cable news, the coverage of the Hawaiian wildfires was extensive, painting a vivid picture of the devastation and loss, with a strong emphasis on the proximate causes of the disaster. Reporters were diligent in detailing the immediate triggers, including the wind speeds from Hurricane Dora and the drying landscape, but the role that global warming played in creating the underlying conditions was largely ignored. While the human stories were told with empathy, the connection between climate change and the increased susceptibility of the islands to climate-driven disasters remained largely unexplored. This omission reflects a common gap in national TV news coverage, where the broad and complex influence of climate change is often overshadowed by more immediate and tangible factors.

    Despite this general oversight, there were some notable exceptions in the coverage that focused on the climate aspects of the wildfires. They not only linked the fires to climate change, but also questioned public officials, asking why they haven't taken actions like declaring a national climate emergency in the face of multiple, climate-driven extreme weather events.

    During the August 9 episode of CNN This Morning, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was challenged by host Victor Blackwell, who used the ongoing catastrophe in Hawaii to question the administration about why it hasn't declared a climate emergency. The moment demonstrated how news hosts can connect climate-driven disasters to climate action by demanding answers from public officials about the government’s responsibility and response to increasingly severe and frequent extreme weather events.

  • Video file

    Citation From the August 9, 2023, episode CNN This Morning

  • During the August 10 episode of MSNBC's All In, host Chris Hayes questioned Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) about the federal government's response to the wildfire disaster in Hawaii, including the lack of a formal declaration of a climate emergency. Hayes' pointed inquiries brought to light the critical challenges faced by the nation in addressing climate change and emphasized the need for comprehensive federal action to tackle the escalating climate crisis.

  • Video file

    Citation From the August 10, 2023, episode of MSNBC's All In

  • On the August 10 episode of MSNBC’s Chris Jansing Reports, host Chris Jansing discussed Hawaii's unprecedented climate hazards with Union of Concerned Scientists’ Brenda Ekwurzel, who highlighted the dire impact Hurricane Dora had on the intensifying wildfires, emphasizing the urgency of addressing these converging climate challenges.

  • Video file

    Citation From the August 10, 2023, episode of MSNBC's Chris Jansing Reports

  • During the August 10 episode of MSNBC’s Alex Wagner Tonight, host Alex Wagner delved into the complex factors contributing to the ongoing crisis in Maui with Ty Kawika Tengan, a professor at the University of Hawaii. Their conversation explored the intersections of climate change, colonialism, industrial agriculture, and indigenous practices. Tengan emphasized the importance of preserving indigenous knowledge and stewardship of the land, while acknowledging the challenges posed by historical changes and the need for continuity to ensure a sustainable future.

  • Video file

    Citation From the August 10, 2023, episode of MSNBC's Alex Wagner Tonight

  • Aside from these few notable exceptions, national TV news largely continues to treat extreme weather events as isolated disasters, ignoring the underlying, shared cause: global warming. This failure to consistently link these events to the larger climate crisis undermines the urgency of responding to our escalating global climate challenge.

    National TV news networks need to make a consistent effort to connect extreme weather events to climate change. This connection is essential to help the public understand that these aren't isolated incidents, but part of a broader trend driven by global warming. By highlighting the link between weather anomalies and climate change, major TV news outlets can reinforce the urgency of the situation and propel a stronger demand for action. Anything less obscures the true nature of the problem and weakens the collective response needed to address our climate emergency.

  • 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 any variation of either of the terms “wildfire” or “fire” or either of the terms “smoke” or “flame” within close proximity of any of the terms “Hawaii,” “Maui,” “Lahaina,” “Dora,” or “Big Island” from August 9, 2023, when acting Gov. Sylvia Luke declared a state of emergency for Hawaii, through August 10, 2023.

    We included segments, which we defined as instances when the Hawaii wildfires were the stated topic of discussion, as well as any examples of “significant discussion” of the wildfires. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the wildfires with one another.

    We did not include passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker in a segment on another topic mentioned the wildfires without another speaker engaging with the comment, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the host or anchor promoted a segment about the wildfires scheduled to air later in the broadcast.

    We then reviewed the identified segments for mentions of climate change or global warming.