As the extreme heat that hit much of the U.S., Europe, China, and even Greenland persisted into late last week, experts were already linking its severity to climate change. However, that climate connection was sometimes hard to find in U.S. TV news coverage: Over a five-day period from July 19-23, Media Matters found that mainstream corporate broadcast TV and cable news segments on extreme heat mentioned climate change in 98 out of 244 combined extreme heat segments – just 40%.
From July 16-18, these networks mentioned climate change in only 32% of segments on extreme heat. While this slight improvement overall in climate coverage is commendable, TV news should not only link these events to climate change but also communicate the causes and solutions to the crisis in covering an era of worsening climate disasters. As climate reporter Emily Atkin recently said on Twitter, “Journalists must mention that climate change is caused primarily by fossil fuels, otherwise the viewer remains uninformed about both the problem AND solution.” Additionally, climate scientists point out that rapid emissions cuts are needed in order to stave off the worst effects of climate change.
A review of the 98 climate segments on the various global extreme heat events aired on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and MSNBC from July 19 to July 23 found that:
- Only 13 segments (13%) explicitly mentioned the role that carbon emissions or greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels play in driving climate change.
- Only 13 climate segments (13%) explicitly called for drastically cutting carbon emissions in order to avoid worsening extreme heat in the future.
Corporate broadcast TV news programs did a poor job explaining what causes climate change and solutions to address it
Broadcast networks ABC, CBS, and NBC ran a combined 75 segments on extreme heat events from July 19 to July 23 of which 21 of them (28%) mentioned climate change. From July 16 to 18, these networks mentioned climate change in 10 of 27 combined segments about extreme heat (37%).
CBS mentioned climate change in 8 of its 20 segments (40%), making it the best-performing broadcast network in terms of climate mentions in extreme heat segments. ABC mentioned climate change in 9 of its 25 segments (36%), while NBC mentioned climate in just 5 of its 30 segments (17%).
Overall, these climate segments largely failed to address what actually causes climate change, and the necessary steps needed to avoid worsening extreme heat events in the future.
Out of ABC’s 9 climate segments, only one mentioned that climate change is human-caused and that it’s driven by a rise in greenhouse gas emissions. ABC meteorologist Ginger Zee did a good job explaining Earth’s clear warming trend on the July 19 edition of World News Tonight, noting that “the attribution to this rapid rise in temperatures? Greenhouse gas emissions. It’s us.”
Neither CBS nor NBC mentioned explicitly that burning fossil fuels is what drives the climate crisis. None of the corporate broadcast networks explicitly mentioned the need to cut carbon emissions or take immediate action on climate change in order to stave off its worst effects.
Every segment on these networks – except for one, which mentioned extreme heat in a general global context – was about either extreme heat events in Europe or the U.S.
Cable TV networks CNN and MSNBC fared a little bit better at connecting the dots on climate change and climate action, but it’s still not enough
CNN and MSNBC ran a combined 169 segments on the extreme heat from July 19 to 23, and 76 of them (45%) mentioned climate change. From July 16 to 18, they collectively mentioned climate change in only 32% of extreme heat coverage (10 of 31 segments).
Almost half of MSNBC’s extreme heat segments – 21 of 45, or 47% – mentioned climate. CNN mentioned climate in 55 of 124 segments (44%).
Of MSNBC’s 21 climate segments, 7 explicitly mentioned the role that emissions from burning fossil fuels play in driving climate change. A good example came from the July 19 edition of Katy Tur Reports, when Greenpeace USA Climate Campaign Director Anusha Narayanan stated, “For Big Oil, destruction and delay is the new denial.”
ANUSHA NARAYANAN: We know that pollution from fossil fuels is the No. 1 contributor to the climate crisis and is going to continue to accelerate these extreme weather events. And so what we need is for these politicians not to be listening to Big Oil, not to be representing the interests of oil and gas, but to be representing the interests of their constituents and making sure that we're taking action on climate.
Just 5 of CNN’s segments explicitly mentioned emissions from fossil fuels. One example came from the July 22 edition of The Lead with Jake Tapper. After talking broadly about the need to address the climate crisis, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said, “The planet is on fire. … We have to kill this at the source. We have to stop this toxic material from entering our atmosphere from pollution from fossil fuels.”
Additionally, 7 of MSNBC’s segments specifically mentioned cutting emissions or taking drastic action in order to stave off worsening climate change. A good example came from the July 19 edition of MSNBC Prime, when Leah Stokes, an associate professor of Political Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, talked about what we can do to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels before ending with the fact that we need action on climate change at all levels of government:
LEAH STOKES: We should all be looking at the things we own that run on fossil fuels. Our cars, our stoves, our furnaces, and asking ourselves how can we get off fossil fuels? Can we get an electric vehicle, or an electric bike? Can we get an induction stove, or a heat pump? There are things that each of us can be doing to try to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. ANd it makes a lot of sense because it's also a lot cheaper when you're not dealing with all the inflation that is happening around fossil fuels. The second thing is we also need to be working as a community to keep ourselves cool. There’s actually 100 million Americans today who are under extreme heat, and there are 60 million Americans who are under an extreme drought. The worst in a millennium. So all of us need to be pushing our politicians at the state level, at the local level, and still keeping on, when it comes to President Biden and Congress, that you know what? We must act on climate change.
Only 6 of CNN’s climate segments mentioned explicitly the need to take drastic action to cut emissions. One such example came from the July 20 edition of Early Start, which featured a clip of climate journalist David Wallace-Wells stating, “The climate is getting hotter. It’s already hotter than it’s ever been in the entire history of human civilization. And almost certainly, no matter what we do over the next decade or two, because we’re not going to cut our emissions to zero tomorrow, the climate’s going to continue to heat up. We need to be cutting our emissions pretty quickly.” (This clip also played during an extreme heat segment on the July 20 edition of New Day).
The vast majority of climate segments on CNN and MSNBC were about extreme heat events in the U.S. and Europe. There were also 6 segments on a mini heat wave in Greenland that is causing rapid ice loss, and one segment on China.
In addition to CNN and MSNBC, we also reviewed Fox News Channel for climate mentions within extreme heat segments. Fox News ran 26 segments on extreme heat, with only 4 of them mentioning climate change, and 3 of the 4 downplayed the significance of climate change’s role in extreme heat. Due to Fox’s history of climate denial (further cemented here), we did not include the network in the full data set.
Networks also used the extreme heat to talk about President Joe Biden’s climate address on July 20
We identified a number of segments – roughly 16 – that used the extreme heat as a springboard to discuss Biden’s recent speech calling climate change a “clear and present danger” and proposing a number of modest actions to address it. Because these segments were not mainly about the extreme heat and only mentioned it in passing, they are not included in the full data set. However, this coverage included good examples of how TV networks should be talking about climate change – using extreme weather to discuss the threat and how we must take immediate action to address it.
A good example came from the July 20 edition of CNN’s New Day. Speaking ahead of Biden’s announcement, White House national climate adviser Gina McCarthy acknowledged that while he was not going to declare a national climate emergency, “the president is going to make it clear that climate change is an emergency. … We're going to go to the breaking point and we're all going to be melting because of this heat, like 10, 100 million people across the world. We have to recognize that this is a problem for our health, it is also an opportunity, however, to grow good jobs and strengthen our economy and make us more secure.”
Networks are still behind on even mentioning climate change in extreme heat segments. They’re much further behind in mentioning the causes of, and solutions to, the climate crisis
Mentioning climate change without saying what drives it or what we can do to avoid these worsening heat effects – such as drastically cutting carbon emissions – does a disservice to the viewer, who may feel a sense of despair that these extreme heat events will inevitably continue to worsen because of climate change and there is nothing we can do about it.
This sort of framing is unhelpful because, in the words of scientist and climate communicator Alaina Wood, it “ultimately leads to climate inaction, which is the opposite of what we want."
TV news shows must do a better job of incorporating how climate change is worsening certain extreme weather events; that it’s the burning of fossil fuels that drives this climate change; and that only rapid emissions cuts will help us avoid climate change from getting worse down the road.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for ABC’s Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and This Week; CBS’ Mornings, Evening News, and Face the Nation; NBC’s Today, Nightly News, and Meet the Press, and all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “heat,” “heatwave,” “heat wave,” “temperature,” “drought,” “hot,” “hotter,” or “hottest” from July 19, 2022, through July 23, 2022.
We included segments, which we defined as instances when extreme heat was the stated topic of discussion or when we found “significant discussion” of extreme heat. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multi-topic segment discussed extreme heat with one another. We did not include passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker mentioned extreme heat without another speaker engaging with the comment, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the host or anchor promoted a segment about extreme heat scheduled to air later in the broadcast.
We then reviewed all identified segments for mentions of climate change or global warming. If a segment mentioned climate change or global warming, we then reviewed whether the segment also mentioned the role that emissions from fossil fuels are playing in driving climate change, and the need to either rapidly reduce carbon emissions or take aggressive action in order to stave off the worst effects of climate change.