The right-wing media echo chamber went into full meltdown after CNN anchor Erica Hill asked Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm whether climate change played a role in the recent Champlain Towers South building collapse in Surfside, Florida. This cycle is par for the course for the right-wing media sphere: take an anodyne statement, amplify it via social media, and “force” Fox News to cover the resulting “story.” As with the vast majority of these non-troversies, the faux outrage surrounding Hill’s question is less about being offended on behalf of the victims of this tragic accident and more about creating a chilling effect and making climate questions verboten.
A reasonable climate question becomes a right-wing media controversy
In the wake of the June 24 Champlain Towers collapse, Hill asked Granholm to contextualize how a rapidly changing climate will affect infrastructure. Granholm deferred from answering whether climate change played a role in the Surfside collapse before pivoting to how global warming is driving the need for resiliency and adaptation. The exchange occurred during the June 29 episode of CNN’s New Day.
Regardless of whether warming-driven sea level rise was the specific culprit in this particular tragic accident, it was reasonable to ask in light of the preliminary reporting and the national spotlight on climate consequences due to the historic heat wave in the Pacific Northwest. A recent HuffPost article detailed climate change’s potential role in the Champlain Towers collapse:
The cause of the disaster, which killed at least four people and left more than 150 missing as of Friday, remains unclear as rescuers pick through the rubble for survivors. But scientists have long feared for the future of this densely populated strip of land atop porous limestone as rising global temperatures increase sea levels.
Land beneath buildings tends to sink as dirt and rock shift as a result of removal or erosion. From 1993 to 1999, the Champlain Towers South high-rise on the Surfside beachfront sank roughly 2 millimeters per year, according to satellite data used in a study that Florida International University researcher Shimon Wdowinski published in April 2020. At the same time, sea levels are rising approximately one-eighth of an inch per year.
Wdowinski’s findings, first reported in USA Today, put a new focus on how ocean waters that have risen more than a foot over the past century can destabilize the porous ground on which many coastal cities sit.
Despite the analysis provided by climate scientists and engineering experts, the temptation for right-wing media to feign outrage was, of course, too strong for them to pass up.
National Review’s Rich Lowry dashed off a tweet in response to the clip:
Breitbart joined in:
The next day, the New York Post piled on:
The CNN segment was further amplified by Fox personality and radio show host Sean Hannity, who acknowledged that “Florida is very, very aware when there’s erosion and has incredible policies in place to refurbish the beaches there” before dismissing the idea that sea level rise could have contributed to the Champlain Towers South collapse.
Demonstrating how little daylight exists between Fox’s so-called “news” and opinion sides, Special Report with Bret Baier also pushed the story, with correspondent Peter Doocy saying that Granholm’s “speculation” about the Florida building collapse is “not welcomed by some lawmakers in Florida” and using her comments to attack the Biden administration’s environmental policies -- another example of Special Report’s decades long pattern of climate misinformation and false narratives.
Perhaps the most egregious Fox segment aired on the June 30 episode of Fox News @ Night. After criticizing Granholm’s answer about the need for resilient infrastructure, correspondent Kevin Corke repeated debunked narratives about the cause of Texas’ power grid problems during the February winter storm, belittled other media outlets for reporting on the public investments needed to shore up climate vulnerable infrastructure, and even managed to squeeze in a quip about the Green New Deal.
The next morning, Fox & Friends host Steve Doocy ran his leg of the faux-outrage relay race, adding, “So, in that soundbite, she’s talking about climate change and infrastructure and this at a time when they are still pulling bodies out of that building. I don’t know that now is the time to get political like that.”
Not to be outdone by its sister network, Fox Business aired a completely unhinged segment during the July 1 episode of Kennedy. Host Lisa Kennedy Montgomery introduced the segment by asserting that Granholm’s answer was “callous” before suggesting that “something far more nefarious” could be behind the disaster and declaring that “the government would rather use a tragedy to acquire more power selling unfounded climate conspiracies than actually saving lives.” The segment went way downhill after that.
All of these stories ignore the very stark reality presented in Hill’s question, Granholm’s response, and even Hannity’s garbled ramblings: Coastal areas like Surfside must plan to address a range of global warming consequences that pose catastrophic risks to American infrastructure.
Cities across the country have made climate resiliency and adaptation central to future planning
Along with more than 100 other municipalities in South Florida, Surfside is planning for sea level rise up to 2 1/2 feet or more over the next 40 years. The city’s “Climate Crisis Report and Action Plan” describes its aging infrastructure as a vulnerability and lists chronic flooding as “the most persistent stressor,” noting, “Rising seas, increased rainfall and rising ground water elevations will only exacerbate this problem with time.”
Although the United States lags behind other countries in its efforts to reduce CO2 pollution, an October 2020 report by the Brookings Institution found that 45 of the 100 largest American cities have adopted a climate action plan, showing that local governments in places like Surfside are attempting to act even in the face of federal gridlock on climate solutions.
It will take some time to determine what actually caused the Champlain Towers South collapse in light of the numerous problems detailed by inspectors in 2018. But there is no doubt that global warming is threatening key infrastructure in the region and across the country. Most recently, the extreme heat wave in the Pacific Northwest exposed the vulnerabilities of infrastructure built according to the old climate normal. As Gizmodo summarized:
Electricity, school systems, and other infrastructure must also be overhauled to withstand the pressures of our climate future, and it’s increasingly clear that the time to do so is now. American infrastructure currently has a C- grade from the American Society for Civil Engineers, and that’s even before accounting for the climate crisis is putting further stress on it. Jean Su, the energy justice program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, noted in an email that among other things, the heat wave—as well as other extreme weather catastrophes like the Texas blackout earlier this year—show the need to “rapidly transition off of fossil fuels and build a resilient energy system that starts with rooftop and community solar and storage.”
Confronted with the scale of the environmental problems facing the country and the need for rapid climate action now, conservative media figures would rather criticize the Biden administration and mainstream news outlets for acknowledging the clear connection between infrastructure and climate change because it’s an area that could drive American public opinion and political action.
It was never about the cause of this specific tragedy; the goal of right-wing media campaigns like this one is to dominate the subject, reframe the debate, and make journalists second guess whether they should ask about climate at all.
There’s still time to stave off the worst consequences of climate change. However, it will require corporate TV news to commit to sustained coverage of climate change and climate solutions, including more discussions like the one Hill had with Granholm. It will also require amplifying the voices of those on the frontlines of addressing the climate crisis, including policymakers and public officials responsible for the millions of Americans who are increasingly concerned about how climate change affects their lives.
Granholm is a former senior adviser at Media Matters.