In a month rife with extreme weather events devastating large swaths of the country, none of the five major Sunday morning political shows aired a single substantive climate segment in October. This marks the second time since January that the major Sunday shows went a month without a substantive climate segment. While reporting on President Donald Trump’s unfolding Ukraine scandal and his possible impeachment dominated much of the shows’ bandwidth, they neglected to cover stories about how his administration’s ongoing rollbacks of environmental protections and climate actions could harm public health and worsen the kinds of extreme weather events currently wreaking havoc in communities across the country.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has been pushing the Sunday shows to offer more and better coverage of climate change. In May, he gave a speech from the Senate floor about the lack of climate coverage from major media outlets and the shallowness of the segments they do run. And today, Whitehouse released a scorecard on the shows' October performance:
Sunday morning political shows ignored Trump’s ongoing erosion of environmental protections and disregard for climate action
In July, Trump gave an address on his supposed environmental accomplishments that gave an insight into his “strategy for how he might talk about the environment in the lead-up to 2020.” During the speech, he didn't mention climate change and asserted, “We have only one America. We have only one planet. That’s why, every day of my presidency, we will fight for a cleaner environment and a better quality of life for every one of our great citizens.” This statement belies the fact his administration has made a concerted effort to rollback environmental regulations, downplay the climate crisis, and protect dying fossil fuel industries.
On October 22, his Environmental Protection Agency finalized the repeal of the Waters of the U.S. rule, which could reduce the number of waterways that fall under federal regulation and open them up to pollution.
A new study released in October found that air pollution was responsible for nearly 10,000 more deaths in 2018 than in 2016. According to Vox, “The researchers, Karen Clay and Nicholas Muller, argue that some of the increase is due to non-regulatory factors, like an increase in wildfires and economic growth. But they note a decline in Clean Air Act enforcement under Donald Trump that could be responsible as well.”
And, after months of posturing, Trump is officially withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate accord. According to a November 4 New York Times story:
While no other nation has followed Mr. Trump’s lead and left the Paris Agreement — indeed, more countries have joined — few are toughening their emissions-reduction targets. Analysts attributed that to the absence of pressure from the United States and they warned that the Trump administration’s antagonism toward climate action could dampen future ambitions.
Discussing whether the media could proverbially “walk and chew gum at the same time” when it comes to covering the unfolding impeachment drama and nearly everything else happening in the Trump administration, climate journalist Emily Atkin noted in a recent edition of her newsletter, Heated, “It was hard enough to get media coverage of Trump’s anti-climate crusade when there wasn’t an impeachment inquiry. Now, we’d be more likely to find two cherry-flavored candies next to each other in a Starburst package than to find a non-impeachment-related segment on cable news.”
History will certainly judge Trump based on what the impeachment inquiry finds. It will judge him far more harshly, however, on the unprecedented actions he took to destroy a livable climate. And it will judge us based on whether we cared enough to pay attention.
It is possible for the Sunday morning political shows to report on impeachment and still prioritize coverage on the very actual harm that Trump’s total capitulation to the fossil fuel industry continues to cause.
Sunday morning political shows ignored devastating extreme events in October
Sunday morning political news shows often lag behind other broadcast and cable TV news programs when it comes to reporting on the clear and unassailable science connecting our warming atmosphere to an increase in the frequency and severity of certain extreme weather events. But as formally aberrant events become more common, how long can the Sunday shows continue their inconsistent and ineffectual reporting on the existential crisis of our time?
None of the Sunday shows reported on the record-breaking extreme heatwave that gripped much of the Northeast in early October, affected over 130 million Americans, and “shatter[ed] temperature records for this time of year with readings that would be impressive even by July standards.”
In early October, the federal government announced the Southeast United States had been under flash drought conditions since September due to the “rapid onset and severity of the event,” but Sunday shows ignored this news as well. According to Climate.gov:
Extreme dryness reigned over the region. Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky and West Virginia all had their driest Septembers on record in the last 125 years. One reason? A lack of rain from tropical storms and hurricanes. Besides rains associated with Dorian along the coastal Atlantic and Tropical Storm Imelda near Houston, tropical rains simply were non-existent over the broader region.
While the eastern part of the country baked, central Texas was inundated by record-breaking flooding. The state had its wettest September in history, which, coupled with record rainfall from October 12-16, led to the catastrophic flooding. This story also went uncovered by the Sunday shows. Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon saw a clear connection between the flooding and climate change. According to The Texas Tribune:
Climate change leads to more rain in any given event,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “The weather patterns we have are the source of things that lead to heavy rain.”
Astrid Caldas, a senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said there is a definite connection between climate change and heavy precipitation events.
“We have seen a nationwide increase in heavy precipitation events,” Caldas said. “For each 1 degree centigrade warmer in the atmosphere, it has the potential to hold up to 7 percent more water vapor, and then the rain has the potential to be heavier.
Finding solutions to the climate crisis is an inherently political process deserving of sustained and substantive coverage
Last month, both CBS’ Face the Nation and NBC’s Meet the Press aired well-received segments as part of Covering Climate Now’s week of dedicated climate coverage. Face the Nation ran a strong segment about global heating increasing the frequency and severity of storms, while Meet the Press questioned why politicians have been ignoring the increasing number of billion dollar extreme weather events. In fact, every Sunday morning political show -- except ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos -- aired at least one substantive climate segment in September.
The fact that the very next month, none of the major Sunday shows ran a single substantive climate segment is more than disconcerting during a time when extreme weather is wreaking havoc across the country. Addressing the climate crisis will require all levels of government to implement solutions that mitigate the worst consequences. Rather than silo or ignore climate issues, Sunday show hosts have an opportunity and an obligation to hold politicians and policymakers accountable by challenging their actions and demanding solutions. Their continued inconsistent approach undercuts the severity of the emergency.