TV news shows largely fail to mention IPCC climate report in extreme weather coverage
Only 13% of broadcast and cable TV news shows mentioned the climate report in their segments on extreme weather
The recent IPCC report detailed how climate change is influencing extreme weather events across the globe, while carbon emissions from coal, oil, and gas show few signs of slowing. As The Washington Post noted, the report “states that the human influence on weather extremes has ‘strengthened’ since its last review in 2014, particularly for heat waves, heavy downpours, droughts and hurricanes.”
At the time of the report’s release and in the days that followed, a confluence of unprecedented and deadly extreme weather events raged across the globe, including a blistering heat wave that impacted millions of Americans, destructive wildfires that burned more than 600,000 acres in California and forced thousands to flee in Turkey, Greece and France, and a blaze in Siberia that scorched more land than all of the fires across the globe combined. There was a drought that triggered the first ever water shortage at Lake Mead (the nation's largest reservoir), and three consecutive storms that barraged the U.S. with deadly flooding and tornadoes and brought heavy rain to earthquake-battered Haiti. Additionally, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that July 2021 was the hottest month ever recorded in human history.
Media Matters found that broadcast and cable TV news shows covered these disasters in earnest, airing a combined 95 segments and 113 weather reports on these various events from August 11 through August 18. While over 30% of these segments referenced climate change, only 12 of them, or 13%, mentioned the IPCC report. Media Matters also found that 100% of the weather reports completely omitted climate change from their coverage -- and, by extension, the IPCC report. This mirrors the steep decline in TV news coverage of the IPCC report after its release. The IPCC report “reveals in new detail just how connected extreme weather and climate change really are,” and the recent coverage of extreme weather events was an opportunity to highlight that link. Unfortunately, many networks missed their chance.
Just one-fifth of broadcast TV news segments on extreme weather mentioned climate change, with only two of them mentioning the IPCC report
Morning and nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, as well as PBS’ nightly news show NewsHour aired a combined 25 segments on various extreme weather events from August 11-18. Only five of these -- 20% -- mentioned climate change, and only two of them -- 8% -- referenced the IPCC report.
The first broadcast mention of the report came on the August 13 edition of PBS’ NewsHour in a panel discussion involving Washington Post columnists Jonathan Capehart and Michael Gerson. The segment centered on the political ramifications of the IPCC report, and whether it would create more urgency among U.S. policymakers to act on climate change. However, Capehart specifically highlighted the significance of the report being released at a time when “Greece is on fire, the Pacific Northwest is on fire,” and “super severe storms are racing across the country.”
The other mention came in the August 14 edition of ABC’s Good Morning America. The segment followed a weather report by meteorologist Rob Marciano, with co-host Dan Harris referencing the report and Marciano noting that the hottest July on record is another strong signal that “climate change continues to accelerate.” Rainier weather also came up in the segment.
CBS This Morning mentioned climate change in two segments, once in the context of general global extreme weather in its August 14 edition, and once in the context of Western U.S. wildfires in its August 18 edition. NBC’s Today mentioned climate in a segment on the continental U.S. heat wave on its August 13 edition. None of these three climate mentions were accompanied by a reference to the IPCC report.
Climate change was mentioned in 20% of the segments in this study, which follows a trend of increased climate reporting that Media Matters has been following this summer. However, because these events took place in the immediate aftermath of the report’s release, and because this summer has been full of deadly, costly, climate-influenced extreme weather events, these programs should do a better job at putting these extreme weather events in context, including by discussing the IPCC report.
For example, wildfire segments made up the majority of specific extreme weather event reporting by these networks during the study period, followed by heat wave reporting and reporting on flooding. Carbon Brief, a website dedicated to the science and policies of climate change, provides an excellent summary of the IPCC report which details its extreme weather findings. On wildfires, Carbon Brief notes:
The report highlights the increasing risk of forest fires in North America. Over 2000-15, climate change exposed 75% more forested area to high fuel aridity over western US, adding nine more “high fire potential” days to each year, the report notes. It adds that, if the warming exceeds 2C, the fire season across North America “expands dramatically”.
Additionally, the report’s own Summary for Policymakers notes, with a high level of confidence, an increase “in the frequency of concurrent heatwaves and droughts on the global scale,” and an increase of “compound flooding in some locations” with a medium level of confidence.
These succinct IPCC findings could have been included in reporting on wildfires, heat waves, drought, and flooding, but the vast majority of extreme weather segments failed to contextualize these events with the findings of the landmark climate report.
Cable TV news shows continue their good streak of mentioning climate change in extreme weather segments, but they could have done a better job of mentioning the IPCC report
Original programming on CNN and MSNBC aired 62 segments on various extreme weather events from August 11-18. While 23 of these segments -- 37% -- mentioned climate change, only eight of them, or 13%, referenced the IPCC report.
Ten of MSNBC’s 30 segments involving extreme weather mentioned climate change, while five of them referenced the IPCC report. Four of these mentions occurred on programming that aired on Saturday, August 14. An excellent example comes from Alex Witt Reports, with NBC News science reporter Denise Chow giving an overview of the IPCC report and linking some of its findings to the extreme weather occurring across the globe.
Other mentions of the IPCC report alongside extreme weather coverage on August 14 came from American Voices With Alicia Menendez, The Cross Connection With Tiffany Cross, and The Week With Joshua Johnson. An additional mention came on the August 11 edition of Andrea Mitchell Reports, where the IPCC report was the focus of an interview with U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry.
Of MSNBC’s 10 overall climate mentions, most came in the context of reporting on general extreme weather events; with regard to specific event mentions, four came during wildfire reporting, and three during heat wave reporting.
Thirteen of CNN’s 32 segments involving extreme weather mentioned climate change, while only three of them referenced the IPCC report.
The best example came during an interview with former California Gov. Jerry Brown during the August 15 edition of CNN Newsroom with Jim Acosta. Jim Acosta brought up the report and then mentioned California’s massive Dixie wildfire. Later on, Brown stressed the need to reduce emissions.
Other IPCC report mentions in segments that also involved extreme weather came on the August 11 edition of New Day and the August 12 edition of CNN Newsroom with Poppy Harlow and Jim Sciutto.
Of CNN’s 13 segments that involved extreme weather, nine referenced wildfires, five referenced heat waves, and five referenced the Western U.S. drought.
Meanwhile, Fox News mentioned the IPCC report in two of its eight segments that also involved extreme weather. On the August 14 edition of The Journal Editorial Report, disingenuous climate contrarian Bjorn Lomborg specifically brought up flooding in order to downplay the findings of the IPCC report. On the August 15 edition of Fox News Sunday, there was a brief panel discussion of the IPCC report, with anchor Chris Wallace affirming the report’s extreme weather findings -- “we all see it in our homes, on TV, terrible forest fires, broiling heat, storms, floods” -- and acknowledging the cognitive dissonance between the dire warnings of the report and politicians quick return to business as usual. Wallace said, “One of the things that is remarkable to me is -- here we are at the end of the week, the report came out I think Monday -- Washington, our leaders, both on the right and the left basically moved on.”
Cable TV news missed a major opportunity to connect a specific extreme weather event to the IPCC report in its reporting on drought -- specifically, on the massive Western U.S. drought. While climate change was mentioned in seven overall segments that also referenced drought, only one of them -- a brief section of the August 12 edition of CNN Newsroom with Poppy Harlow and Jim Sciutto -- also mentioned the IPCC report.
The IPCC report -- with a high level of confidence -- finds that global warming is increasing the severity of droughts in certain areas. Report co-author Jessica Tierney devotes an excellent Twitter thread to some of the report’s findings on drought, where she notes that “More emissions = thirstier atmosphere = more severe droughts. If we cut emissions sooner rather than later we can avoid the worse-case scenarios.” While there were several segments that did an excellent job of covering the historic water shortage at Lake Mead (and linking it to climate change), there were still far too few climate segments on drought given the importance of the topic.
Out of 113 combined broadcast and cable TV weather reports on extreme weather, not a single one mentioned climate change
Media Matters also reviewed weather reports of various extreme weather events, which we categorized as a report by a TV network meteorologist on an extreme weather event. Over the past several years, weather reporters such as Jeff Berardelli of CBS and Al Roker of NBC have been doing a good job of linking climate change to extreme weather in their reporting. Broadcast TV news shows aired a combined 53 weather reports, and cable TV news shows aired a combined 60 weather reports. Not one of them mentioned climate change (or, by extension, the IPCC report).
A vast majority of the weather reports reviewed in this time frame -- 104 out of 113 -- referenced one of the several tropical storms that hit the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the eastern U.S. While climate change certainly did not cause any of these storms, there are signals that climate change could have influenced these storms.
For example, Tropical Storm Fred brought heavy rainfall and led to “historic” flooding of the Pigeon River in North Carolina. Hurricane Grace brought torrential rain to Haiti and “severe flooding and mudslides” to Eastern Mexico. Additionally, Tropical Storm Henri brought record rainfall to the Northeast U.S., including the most rain ever recorded in New York City in a single hour.
Scientists are confident that global warming is increasing the intensity, rainfall amount, and storm surge of hurricanes, something which the IPCC report affirms. Additionally, the IPCC report states, with high confidence, that there will be “more intense heavy precipitation events and greater flood hazards” during wet events. Inside Climate News recently interviewed several climate scientists about key takeaways from the IPCC report regarding hurricanes:
Tropical cyclone intensity and the rates of rainfall act to further elevate storm surges, and rising seas from global warming will likely exacerbate the storm surge from future tropical cyclones.
The dominant factor in the extreme rainfall amounts during Harvey was the storm’s slow speed, the authors wrote. But studies published after Harvey have argued that human-caused climate change contributed to an increase in the rate of rainfall, which compounded the extreme local rainfall, according to the IPCC report.
Given the heavy rains and flooding that these three tropical storms brought, which came weeks before peak hurricane season, weather reporters could have contextualized these events with IPCC report findings and with the myriad other extreme weather events happening across the globe. But alas, it remains a missed opportunity.
Because TV meteorologists are “effective and trustworthy climate change educators,” it’s important that climate change gets mentioned as much as possible in extreme weather reporting.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database or the Nexis database for all original episodes of ABC’s Good Morning America and World News Tonight, CBS’ This Morning and Evening News, NBC’s Today and Nightly News, and PBS’ NewsHour and all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “extreme weather,” “tropical,” “storm,” or “hurricane” within the same transcript as any of the terms “heat,” “heatwave,” “temperature,” “fire,” or “wildfire” from August 11 through 18, 2021.
We reviewed segments, which we defined as instances when various extreme weather events were the stated topic of discussion or when we found “significant discussion” of various extreme weather events. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed extreme weather events with one another. We also reviewed weather reports, which we defined as instances when a network meteorologist reported on any extreme weather event. We did not count headline news rundowns, passing mentions, or teasers.
We then reviewed the identified segments for any mention of either of the terms “climate” or “global warming” as well as any references to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that was released on August 9. Specific extreme weather events we reviewed included heat waves, wildfires, tropical storms, droughts, and floods.
We counted segments as climate segments if extreme weather events were mentioned in segments about the IPCC report or climate change.