The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) latest report released on February 28 included the sobering finding: “The rise in weather and climate extremes has led to some irreversible impacts as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt.” The new report, which focused on climate impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability, received a modicum of coverage in digital and print outlets – but broadcast and cable news coverage of the report dropped dramatically compared to coverage of the previous IPCC report released last August, and it was largely overshadowed by news of Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
Broadcast morning and nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS and original programming on CNN covered the new IPCC report for a total of 15 minutes on the day it was released. Since then, only one program on MSNBC has reported on the latest warning from scientists. Fox has yet to cover it.
With so much media attention focused on the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is tempting to pit climate coverage against a major international news story with far-reaching geopolitical ramifications. However, TV news coverage of the IPCC report did not have to be an instance of prioritizing reporting on one story over the other. The crisis on the European continent and the dire findings of the IPCC climate report are in no small part driven by the world’s continued reliance on fossil fuels, and national TV news missed a key opportunity both to discuss the report on its own merits and to provide further context on the climate and energy aspects of the crisis in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Fox News has filled the vacuum by flooding its airwaves with disingenuous lies that undermine the need for climate action.
Broadcast and cable news spent seventeen minutes covering the UN report on climate adaptation
From February 28 to March 2, 2022, broadcast morning and nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS and original programming on CNN and MSNBC devoted just 17 minutes combined to coverage of the new IPCC report. Fox News has not covered the recent climate report at all as of this writing.
Broadcast TV news coverage from ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS aired a combined six segments across nine minutes on the IPCC report. The corporate networks covered the story for approximately 90 seconds each, while PBS NewsHour aired four minutes of coverage about the report’s findings. All of these segments aired the day the report was released.
Original programming on cable news channels CNN and MSNBC aired a combined three segments across nearly eight minutes of coverage about the IPCC report. CNN aired two segments across nearly six minutes, while MSNBC aired one segment that ran for little more than 90 seconds. Both of CNN’s segments aired the day the report was released, while MSNBC covered the report on March 1.
These totals represent a dramatic decline compared to coverage of the previous IPCC report released last August, when morning and nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS aired a combined six segments across 22 minutes, and CNN and MSNBC aired a combined 26 segments across nearly 100 minutes of coverage – for a total of more than two hours of coverage across broadcast and cable TV news.
Why the crisis in Ukraine is also an important climate story
The latest IPCC report provides a stark reminder about how far climate inaction has pushed Earth, and its natural systems, to the brink of ruin. Humanity relies on these natural systems like the vast majority of the planet’s lifeforms, and it now faces an existential challenge. According to the IPCC:
Increased heatwaves, droughts and floods are already exceeding plants’ and animals’ tolerance thresholds, driving mass mortalities in species such as trees and corals. These weather extremes are occurring simultaneously, causing cascading impacts that are increasingly difficult to manage. They have exposed millions of people to acute food and water insecurity, especially in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, on Small Islands and in the Arctic.
To avoid mounting loss of life, biodiversity and infrastructure, ambitious, accelerated action is required to adapt to climate change, at the same time as making rapid, deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. So far, progress on adaptation is uneven and there are increasing gaps between action taken and what is needed to deal with the increasing risks, the new report finds. These gaps are largest among lower-income populations.
The report, which was released just a few days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, kick-started a much-needed discussion on the role energy resources, particularly fossil fuels, play in exacerbating geopolitical crises and stalling climate action. The European Union receives roughly 40% of its gas via Russian pipelines, including two key pipelines that run through Ukraine. The United States and other western nations have levied sanctions against Russia in response to its attack, which could impact global energy prices.
As Karl Mathiesen, senior climate correspondent at Politico Europe, wrote:
The war in Ukraine is tied to the climate crisis in multiple ways. The aggressor is a petrostate whose long-term economic future depends on slow action to cut emissions. Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas is driving rival conversations about accelerating clean energy and exploring new, alternative sources for fossil fuels. Ukraine is a major grain and corn producing country, and the invasion may create a food shock that exacerbates climate-driven hunger in parts of Africa.
While Putin is dragging the world into a new era of higher defense spending and military priorities, the IPCC has delivered a stark reminder that it cannot be understood in isolation from climate change and the geopolitical and social fallout from the transition to green energy.
The Russian war with Ukraine has understandably consumed much of the news media’s attention. However, instead of ignoring or siloing the recent IPCC report, national TV news shows could have used it as an opportunity to connect climate inaction to its real-world consequences. Svitlana Krakovska, the leader of Ukraine's delegation to the IPCC, noted this link succinctly during a recent IPCC panel meeting:
“Let me assure you that this human-induced climate change and war against Ukraine have direct connections and the same roots,” she explained. “They are fossil fuels and humanity’s dependence on them."
Fox again fills the climate news vacuum with lies that advance the fossil fuel industry’s agenda
Following a familiar pattern, Fox News has leapt into the void left by other news networks to push a hodgepodge of simplistic and harmful lies that further its ongoing war on climate action and the Biden administration.
Over a 48-hour period from February 22-23, Fox News used the crisis in Ukraine as a pretext to push well-worn narratives blaming climate policies for high gas prices, the canceled Keystone pipeline, and the supposed decline of American energy independence. In fact, over a seven-day period from February 22 to February 28, Fox mentioned the Keystone pipeline approximately 141 times in segments about the Ukraine crisis.
While Fox amplifies repeatedly debunked talking points about climate change, fossil fuels, and clean energy, CNN and MSNBC fail to take opportunities presented by the release of the IPCC to contextualize important stories like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Instead, they sometimes echo debunked conservative talking points about fossil fuels.
Why national TV news must weave climate into relevant current events
National TV news has done a better job in recent years of mentioning climate change and covering important climate stories, but the coverage is too often separated from other stories that are intimately connected to the climate crisis.
For example, around the time the previous IPCC report was released in August, there were blistering heat waves that affected more than a hundred million Americans, destructive wildfires that burned more than 600,000 acres in California, a drought that triggered the first ever water shortage at Lake Mead, and the announcement that July 2021 was the hottest month ever recorded in human history. But despite these stories’ obvious climate connections, news shows largely failed to incorporate the report’s findings in their extreme weather coverage.
Climate is a key driver of world events, and the new report makes clear that governments must undertake immediate and transformative climate action to mitigate both extreme weather and political instability. “Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all,” the IPCC starkly concludes.
Corporate news networks must decide whether they will give this existential threat the attention it deserves in finally connecting climate change to other major crises being exacerbated by our continued reliance on fossil fuels – or will they continue to cede the narrative to networks like Fox, doubling down on the same harmful coverage of policies that have pushed our species to the brink of devastation?
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database and Nexis database for all original programming on cable news networks CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News Channel, as well as all original episodes of ABC’s Good Morning America and World News Tonight, CBS Mornings and Evening News, NBC’s Today and Nightly News, and PBS NewsHour for either of the terms “climate” or “warming” within close proximity to any of the terms “report,” “study,” “IPCC,” “Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” “United Nations,” or “U.N.” or any variations of any of the terms “adapt,” “impact,” or “science” from February 2, through March 2, 2022.
We timed segments, which we defined as instances when the IPCC report was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of the IPCC report. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the IPCC report with one another. We also included headline reports, which we defined as instances when an anchor, host, or correspondent read a short news report about the IPCC report in rapid succession with several unrelated stories.
We did not include passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker discussed the IPCC report without another speaker engaging with the comment, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about the IPCC report scheduled to air later in the broadcast.
We rounded all times to the nearest minute.