CNN's Hour-Long Climate Change Special Ignores Emissions

A CNN special on the threat of more frequent extreme weather events fueled by climate change ignored the role of manmade greenhouse gas emissions in warming the atmosphere, sparking criticism from a scientist and a CNN veteran.*

The hour-long program, titled “The Coming Storms,” set out to examine “the factors that made the impact of superstorm Sandy so devastating,” featuring “insights from researchers and scientists on climate change[.]”

CNN did explore how climate change will amplify the impacts of disastrous weather events like Hurricane Sandy. Given the network's track record of paying scant attention to climate change even while reporting on its consequences, it was a commendable effort. But CNN failed to make the distinction that climate change is not a natural phenomenon; rather, it is driven by human activity. A article promoting the special posed the question: “Are we ready for the next one?” Indeed, the program focused overwhelmingly on safeguard measures to protect against “inevitable” extreme weather, without mentioning the role of manmade greenhouse gas emissions.

Scott Mandia, a professor of Physical Sciences, wrote in emails to Media Matters that although he was pleased CNN connected climate change to extreme weather events, “A perfect show would have used the last five to ten minutes to clearly link climate change to record increases in CO2 from burning fossil fuels followed by case studies of countries, states, towns that have used renewables to clean the environment, create jobs, and save money. ala [PBS documentary] Earth: The Operator's Manual."

CNN has drawn criticism for its failure to report on extreme weather in the context of climate change. Following an interview in which Bill Nye “The Science Guy” said he was “disappointed” in the network for its eschewal of climate reporting, a Media Matters study found that only 4 percent of CNN's segments reporting on record-breaking heat in July 2012 mentioned climate change. CNN and other broadcast outlets ignored a late 2011 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on the risks posed by climate change-spurred extreme weather events. Certainly, when considered alongside such criticism, “The Coming Storms” represents a step forward.

But according to a post-Sandy survey, 60 percent of Americans who voted in the 2012 presidential election already agree that “global warming made Hurricane Sandy worse,” and an October 2012 Yale survey found that 74 percent of Americans think “global warming is affecting weather in the United States.” Meanwhile, only 54 percent accept that climate change is caused mostly by human activity. Media outlets like CNN would do well to educate the public about that connection as they continue to improve their climate coverage.

UPDATE: Think Progress' Joe Romm reports that former CNN journalist Peter Dykstra criticized the special, noting that he “didn't hear a single mention of what causes climate change, or what can still be done to limit its impacts.”

*Language has been updated.