In the first days of September, the remnants of Hurricane Ida walloped New York City and the surrounding region, catching its inhabitants by surprise -- including the cable networks headquartered there. As a result, their coverage of the storm’s aftermath was infused with urgency and calls for action. A week later, President Joe Biden’s September 7 visit to the tri-state area produced another news cycle firmly aligning the need to rebuild following the climate-fueled storm with his plan to make the country’s infrastructure more resilient to the climate emergency. But as negotiations in Congress around the infrastructure bill and the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package came to a head on Monday, the very visceral lessons learned from Hurricane Ida and what it means for the climate crisis, one of the issues which the packages taken together are intended to address, were largely absent from the coverage.
National cable news coverage of the spending bills negotiations largely failed to contextualize the need for urgent climate action
Cable news coverage of congressional negotiations over the Biden administration’s trillion dollar infrastructure bill and $3.5 trillion reconciliation package has been predictably intense. Over the last few days, as negotiations among Democrats reached a crescendo, there has been near wall-to-wall coverage of the ongoing congressional battle -- intraparty infighting, like horse race politics, is almost too irresistible for many cable news shows to ignore. But there was little to no substantive coverage on how the proposed spending bills would mitigate the existential crisis posed by climate change. In fact, as debate over the legislation ramped up from September 27-28, only four segments about the bills -- three of which aired on MSNBC and one on CNN -- included substantive mentions of climate.
Instead, the vast majority of coverage was focused on the internecine fighting among Democratic Party leaders who ostensibly represent different ideological wings; this is catnip for cable news. But this overwhelming focus on palace intrigue does a continued disservice to the millions of people who have already been harmed by extreme climate events, as well as those who will bear the brunt of climate catastrophe in the future.
The failure to focus on the specific climate provisions of these spending bills is the latest in a long line of missed opportunities for national cable news to connect extreme climate events with the urgent need for political action on climate change. From September 9-26, major cable news outlets CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC aired only 18 segments with substantive mentions of climate change out of the hundreds of segments about the infrastructure and reconciliation process -- a significant drop-off from the 32 such segments that aired between September 7-8 in response to Biden’s visit to survey Ida’s damage and pitch his infrastructure plan.
Once that news cycle ended, cable news shows seemingly returned to siloing the infrastructure conversation, making a mostly cursory connection to climate as just one of a litany of issues the spending bills would address among the myriad infrastructure and resiliency challenges facing large swaths of the country. Granted, the reconciliation bill is broad and attempts to address multiple issues. However, in the wake of Hurricane Ida and the multiple devastating extreme climate events this spring and summer, infrastructure and climate resiliency are top priorities for millions of people, and these concerns were rarely addressed with the depth and substance they deserve.
One notable exception aired during the September 12 episode of MSNBC’s American Voices with Alicia Menendez. The segment featured Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-NY) in a wide-ranging, in-depth discussion about the intersection of infrastructure, climate change, and climate justice.
Another strong segment aired during the September 12 episode of MSNBC’s PoliticsNation. The 15-minute conversation between host Al Sharpton and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan was particularly noteworthy because it was one of the rare segments to contextualize how climate change and environmental injustice disproportionately harms marginalized communities while also detailing how Biden’s infrastructure plan would begin to redress some of these harms. The segment also discussed the need for more resilient infrastructure in southern Louisiana, especially in the wake of Hurricane Ida.
Cable news severed discussions of extreme weather events like Ida and how the spending bills would address these climate consequences
What was largely lost in the intense focus on political jockeying was any discussion of how well the spending bills would address the myriad challenges facing the United States right now, including climate change. But it didn’t have to be this way.
Recent coverage of Hurricane Ida provides an illustrative example. After pummeling the South, what was left of Ida unleashed torrential rains across the Northeast and mid-Atlantic region that caused widespread flooding and dozens of deaths from September 1-2, while multiple tornadoes ripped through New Jersey and Pennsylvania. It was a chilling reminder of the destruction that extreme climate events can bring to densely populated urban areas.
Unlike coverage of Hurricane Ida’s landfall in Louisiana at the end of August -- which included few climate mentions, discussions about the need to shore up vulnerable infrastructure against the new climate normal, or calls for political action -- national cable news coverage of Ida’s impact on the Northeast was more substantive, and even included in-depth discussions about the need to improve and protect valuable infrastructure on the East Coast.
Cable news coverage on September 2 mentioned that climate change drove Ida’s destructiveness dozens of times, and 26 segments mentioned the storm’s impact on infrastructure or the need for climate resiliency. Throughout the day, cable news hosts featured public officials from impacted communities in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania who made the case for why their areas needed more climate-resilient infrastructure.
One of the most notable segments aired on CNN Newsroom, which featured NYC Environmental Justice Alliance Executive Director Eddie Bautista and National Geographic’s environmental and climate change writer Sarah Gibbens in a wide-ranging discussion. The segment included an urgent call to action from Bautista about the need for a spending bill that adequately addresses the infrastructure challenges in vulnerable communities like New Orleans.
Coverage of Ida could have been a much-needed paradigm shift that included fulsome calls for climate action from cable news shows. Before Ida made its way to the mid-Atlantic, Media Matters found that cable news coverage had already failed to consistently connect this summer’s extreme climate events to environmental justice issues or the need for climate action. Cable news outlets also rarely connected how underfunding and neglecting key infrastructure, such as power grids, has dire ramifications for people trying to recover in the wake of a climate disaster. But the brief cable news conversations about climate resiliency sparked by Ida’s destructive path through the Northeast and mid-Atlantic have seemingly been all but forgotten in the storm’s wake. Unfortunately, the stakes for climate action could not be higher.
The pair of spending bills in Congress might be the last chance at meaningful climate action at the federal level
Neither the infrastructure bill nor reconciliation bill are perfect, but they both contain meaningful climate provisions. According to a recent CBS News article:
Lowering emissions by relying less on fossil fuels is how Mr. Biden's $3.5 trillion plan aims to meet climate goals and create jobs. A transition to clean energy would increase demand for the manufacturing of products like solar panels and wind turbines. Part of the proposed budget would incentivize green technology be made in the U.S.
The plan also includes a $150 billion "clean electricity performance program," which would pay utility companies to source their energy from renewable sources. That program is modeled after successful statewide clean energy standards.
A clean electricity performance program would be the "marquee component" of the reconciliation bill, said Jessica Goad, deputy director of the nonprofit Conservation Colorado.
Even the pared down $1 trillion infrastructure bill that passed the Senate includes substantial funding for important climate projects. As The New York Times wrote:
The legislation is, no doubt, substantial on its own. It would be the largest infusion of federal investment into infrastructure projects in more than a decade, touching nearly every facet of the American economy and fortifying the nation’s response to the warming of the planet. Funding for the modernization of the nation’s power grid would reach record levels, as would projects to better manage climate risks. Hundreds of billions of dollars would go to repairing and replacing aging public works projects.
Important discussions about the spending bills should also include the need to address environmental injustice. Axios, for example, recently covered a study that found more than half of American children under six have detectable levels of lead in their blood. And many environmental justice activists have been critical of the spending negotiations process as important provisions, such as the $45 billion allocated to replace lead pipes and service lines, got whittled down for political expediency. These are among many important issues surrounding environmental justice that national cable news should also be highlighting in coverage of the bills.
Despite both spending bills’ inadequacies, their passage represents one of the last chances to pass meaningful climate policy at the federal level, especially as the window for climate action is rapidly closing. With this in mind, national cable news outlets must pivot away from the tendency to discuss climate-related bills mostly through the lens of how it will affect either the Democrats’ or Republicans’ political fortunes and begin holding the powerful to account for continued climate inaction, demanding that those entrusted with our future pass meaningful legislation to mitigate the harm from climate change and build a healthier, more resilient society for us all.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “climate,” “warming,” “infrastructure,” “reconciliation,” “budget,” “spending,” “stimulus,” or "3.5 trillion” from September 7-28, 2021.
We counted segments, which we defined as instances when the infrastructure or reconciliation legislation was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of the bills, that also included discussion of climate change. We defined significant discussion as two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussing either legislation with one another.
We did not count headline reports, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host read news highlights covering a range of topics; passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker spoke without another engaging with the comment; or teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment scheduled to air later in the broadcast.
We also searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “hurricane,” “storm,” or “Ida" for September 2, 2021.
We counted segments, which we defined as instances when Hurricane Ida was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of Hurricane Ida. We defined significant discussion as two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussing Hurricane Ida with one another.
We then reviewed identified segments for whether any speaker connected Hurricane Ida to climate change.