National TV networks get better at linking climate change to extreme weather events, but still largely fail to mention solutions
Networks missed a golden opportunity to weave discussion about the Inflation Reduction Act into coverage of worsening climate impacts
A summer of climate-fueled extreme weather events has continued on in August across much of the U.S. and Europe. More extreme heat hit western Europe, which had just experienced some of the worst heat the continent had ever seen in July. The region could also be going through its worst drought in nearly 500 years. Meanwhile, a prolonged megadrought in the U.S. meant that seven western states had to cut water use from the Colorado River. In addition to extreme weather events, several new studies were released in August that highlighted just how dire the climate crisis has become. One found that over 100 million Americans will be living under an “extreme heat belt” by 2050. Another found that a megaflood could inundate large swaths of California, while a third study found that the Arctic region is warming “nearly four times faster than the Earth as a whole.”
Extreme heat, prolonged drought, polar warming, and flooding — these events are all intensified by human-induced climate change.
National TV news has been reporting on these issues while the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) passed Congress on August 12 and was then signed into law by President Biden on August 16. As the most significant (though still imperfect) climate legislation ever passed in the U.S., the IRA can go a long way toward reducing emissions here in the U.S. It could also spur other countries to act on climate change and ultimately move the needle in ensuring that extreme weather events like those we’ve experienced this summer don’t worsen in the future.
While TV networks did a good job of incorporating climate change into segments on these extreme weather events, very rarely did they weave the IRA and the importance of climate solutions into this reporting.
Over a 5-day period — from August 12, when the IRA passed Congress, to August 16, when it was signed into law by President Biden — news shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and MSNBC aired a combined 60 segments on various extreme weather events. While 34 segments (57%) mentioned climate change, only 8 of them (13%) specifically mentioned the IRA and the need to address the climate crisis in order to prevent these events from worsening in the future.
Over half of corporate broadcast TV news segments on extreme weather mentioned climate change, but only 1 mentioned the IRA
Broadcast networks ABC, CBS, and NBC ran a combined 17 extreme weather segments between August 12 and August 16. Climate change was mentioned in 9 of them (53%).
CBS mentioned climate change in 3 of its 5 extreme weather segments; NBC mentioned climate in 4 of its 8 segments; ABC mentioned climate in 2 of its 4 segments. Of these climate segments, 7 centered around the western U.S. drought or extreme heat, while 1 centered around the California megaflood study. Additionally, 1 segment on the August 13 edition of NBC’s Today looked at how worsening extreme weather events in the U.S. are creating climate refugees.
This latest data from these networks shows a slight improvement in linking climate change to worsening extreme weather events. From July 19 to 23, these networks mentioned climate in only 28% of global heat segments. From June 14 to 21, these networks mentioned climate change in only 9% of reporting on various extreme weather events.
Despite their improvement at linking climate change to worsening extreme weather, these networks still largely failed to discuss climate solutions, such as the IRA, in their extreme weather reporting. Only the August 16 edition of CBS Evening News mentioned the IRA in an extreme weather segment; the network linked it to the western U.S. megadrought and the water crisis that the drought is leading to. In fact, the western U.S. water crisis was CBS Evening News’ lead story that night.
An honorable mention for good climate reporting during this period goes to the aforementioned Today segment from August 13; although the segment did not mention the IRA, reporter Anne Thompson did note about climate change that “there are things we can do, and it starts with opting for cleaner energy over energy made from fossil fuels — that way we can protect ourselves and the places we love.” This is the type of transition language that should be inserted into every climate segment regarding an extreme weather event.
Cable TV network CNN did the vast majority of extreme weather reporting and IRA mentions
CNN ran a whopping 41 segments on various extreme weather events from August 12 through August 16. Of those 41 segments, 24 of them (59%) mentioned climate change. A majority of the segments that mention climate (15) were about drought and heat in both the U.S. and Europe. There were also 6 segments about ice melt in Antarctica and Greenland, 2 segments on general extreme weather, and 1 segment on the possible California megaflood.
However, only 6 of the network’s 41 extreme weather segments, or 15%, also incorporated discussion of the IRA.
A positive example comes from the 2 p.m. hour of the August 14 edition of CNN Newsroom. Speaking against the backdrop of worsening global extreme weather events, longtime climate activist Bill McKibben noted that the IRA is “an attempt to slow the pace of global warming enough that it doesn't cut civilization off at the knees.” He later stated that “there's both good news and bad news in that bill — a lot of support for clean energy, but Senator Manchin shoehorned in a lot of support for dirty energy too.” McKibben also talked about the necessity of rapidly transitioning off of fossil fuels to cleaner and cheaper forms of energy.
Earlier this summer, from July 19 to 23, CNN mentioned climate in only 44% of its coverage of global extreme heat. From June 14 to 21, the network mentioned climate in just 22% of various extreme weather events. Clearly, the network has been making efforts to link climate change to extreme weather as the summer progresses. This is evident in its August 16 coverage of the western U.S. drought and the water crisis implications. CNN aired 5 segments about the water crisis on location from Lake Mead. Their reporting on the issue was on par with how some of the biggest newspapers in the U.S. treated the issue, with the water crisis on the front page of The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post on August 17.
MSNBC, meanwhile, aired only 2 segments on extreme weather between August 12 through 16. None of these segments came after August 13. Only one of its segments – the August 13 edition of PoliticsNation, mentioned climate change and the importance of the IRA in fighting it. Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried spoke about flooding implications for Miami, noting that “We are rescuing our climate with this landmark legislation, landmark dollars, and making sure that we're utilizing these resources to make sure that we are preparing for the future — the crisis is already here in the state of Florida.”
This is a poor performance from MSNBC, which did a better job of both running extreme weather segments at earlier periods this summer and connecting them to climate change.
TV Networks are getting better at connecting climate change to extreme weather events, but still lag on solutions-focused reporting
As extreme weather events worsen, TV news shows need to incorporate climate change into coverage of those events. Throughout this summer, these news shows have steadily improved on at least mentioning climate change when covering these events. But this is the bare minimum — as Media Matters made clear in a July extreme weather review, reporters must also mention 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.”
With these extreme weather events, the publication of important climate studies, and the passage of the largest climate bill in U.S. history all occurring during the same time in mid-August, there was a golden opportunity for reporters to connect extreme weather coverage to the kinds of climate action that is laid out in the IRA.
Despite the failure here, there is still time for TV reporters to correct their mistakes. The passage of the IRA is not the end game for federal climate action: it’s just the beginning, and it signals the beginning of an economy-wide shift toward clean energy and away from fossil fuels. Consistent and substantive climate reporting by TV news that clearly explains climate change’s role in worsening extreme weather events and subsequently discusses climate solutions can help sustain the momentum on climate action.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original episodes of 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 as well as all original programming on CNN and MSNBC for any of the terms “heat advisory,” “heatwave,” “heat index,” “extreme heat,” “extreme temperatures,” “drought,” “megadrought,” “scorching temperatures,” “deadly heat,” “dry spell,” “Lake Powell,” “Lake Mead,” “Colorado River,” “flood,” “megaflood,” “Arctic,” “Antarctica,” “ice sheet,” or “Greenland” from August 12, 2022, through August 16, 2022.
We included segments, which we defined as instances when drought, extreme heat, flooding, or polar ice melt was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of any of these extreme weather events. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multi-topic segment discussed any of these extreme weather events with one another. We also included weather reports, which we defined as instances when any of these extreme weather events was the stated topic of discussion by a meteorologist in front of a green screen.
We did not include passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker mentioned any of these extreme weather events, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the host or anchor promoted a segment about any of these extreme weather events coming up later in the broadcast.
We then reviewed each segment or weather report for mentions of the terms “climate” or “global warming.” Within segments that referenced climate change or global warming, we also reviewed whether any speaker mentioned the Inflation Reduction Act.