Broadcast TV news’ coverage of climate change has traditionally been terrible. Climate coverage on the broadcast nightly news and Sunday shows actually fell 45% from 2017 to 2018 at a time when the climate crisis was steadily worsening, U.S. leadership was rolling back key environmental protections, and the issue was gaining more urgency among younger generations. All too often, Fox News has dominated the coverage of the issue by outperforming the other major cable outlets with the sheer volume of its content while simultaneously downplaying or denying the severity of the climate crisis.
But 2019 has seen some improvements in climate coverage, thanks largely to policy proposals like the Green New Deal, vigorous youth and grassroots activism, and Democratic presidential candidates making it a top campaign issue. In fact, searches for climate change over the past five years peaked in September 2019, according to Google Trends, surpassing searches from July 2017, when President Donald Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement.
Much of September’s great coverage was linked with the Covering Climate Now initiative, a collaborative media project in which over 300 outlets worldwide produced dedicated climate change coverage for one week. This initiative was unique in the depth and scope of its coverage, and many of the participating outlets touched upon climate change issues that have been either underreported or ignored in the media altogether. This diverse coverage was especially important because when mainstream media talk about climate change, much of the time they are focused on the president or mention it in the context of a political horse race. Mainstream media -- especially broadcast TV news -- can learn from the great examples of climate change coverage by outlets participating in Covering Climate Now.
Even though research shows that media coverage can lead to more engagement and less public apathy by focusing on actions to address the climate crisis, mainstream media still regularly fail to cover climate solutions. In 2017 and 2018, less than 19% of climate change segments on corporate broadcast networks' major nightly news programs mentioned climate solutions or climate action.
In contrast, climate solutions were covered during the Covering Climate Now initiative, and the coverage looked at a variety of topics:
Renewable energy is getting cheaper and cheaper: The longtime knock on renewable energy has been that it can’t compete against fossil fuels without subsidies. Reporters at Bloomberg track the immense progress that renewable energy has made in the past decade, noting that new wind and solar projects are now “cheaper than new coal and gas plants in two-thirds of the world.” This development has profound implications for fighting climate change. Although there is still a long way to go before renewables can fully replace fossil fuels, it’s great news that wind and solar can now compete without subsidies. Additionally, sales agreements for developers building new renewable projects are moving from “20- or 25-year power-purchase contracts to ensure a return on investment” to “15 years or less.” The expectation now is that these clean energy projects “will compete against gas- and coal-fired plants in wholesale markets after the deals conclude.”
Regenerative agricultural practices can help slow climate change: Writing for Civil Eats, farmer Gabe Brown and agricultural specialist Ron Nichols detail how the climatological and human-caused factors, including the immense grassland-to-cropland conversion that happened in the early 20th century, helped set the stage for the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. “Not much has changed,” they write. Climate change is now worsening the conditions in farm country, where “soils are less able to store water or absorb heavy rainfall and, as a result, they’re more susceptible to periods of drought or flooding.” The writers advocate for regenerative agricultural practices to ensure healthy soil in the future, including no-till planting, integrating beneficial insects, and crop rotations.
Transportation -- the largest source of emissions in the U.S. -- must be reworked: The San Francisco Chronicle looks at California’s plans to meet its emissions reduction goal by 2030, and the “dramatic shift in lifestyle and human behavior” it will likely require. Large-scale solutions could include “more housing packed next to transit, motorists retiring their gas-burning vehicles to drive electric cars, and an intricate but well-functioning transportation system that encourages people to drive less.” Meanwhile, Andy Bosselman at The Colorado Sun argues that the key for Colorado to reduce its own transportation emissions is to “stop building new roads and expanding the ones we have.”
Climate change disproportionately affects minority and low-income communities, but broadcast TV news has been nearly silent on this fact. When reporting on hurricanes Harvey (2017) and Florence (2018), morning and nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC did not air a single substantive segment on environmental justice. Additionally, people of color made up only 9% of those who were interviewed, featured, or quoted in climate coverage on the broadcast networks’ nightly and Sunday news shows in 2018.
Climate change is exacerbating extreme weather effects, and issues of environmental racism will continue to fester. It is imperative that this issue gets the attention it deserves; luckily, the Covering Climate Now initiative gave us many good examples of such coverage. Here are a few topics that were covered:
Massachusetts frontline communities bear the brunt of climate change: NPR station WBUR reports on how the Chelsea Creek region of Boston, where residents are overwhelmingly “identified as a racial or ethnic minority,” shoulders the burden of the city’s environmental issues. Storage tanks of jet fuel, heating fuel, and road salt are primarily located in the area, which can experience much higher-than-average temperatures compared to the rest of the city, and flooding there is a major concern. The WBUR reporters conclude that listening to these communities that are “most likely to be impacted by a climate change-driven disaster” and implementing climate resiliency strategies can help mitigate climate change’s effects on the region. Across the state, the Daily Hampshire Gazette notes that over half of the top 20 polluters in western Massachusetts are located in Hampden County, which has the second highest poverty rate and the highest rate of Latino residents by county in the state.
Isra Hirsi wants to connect climate change to Black lives: At The Root, Anne Branigin looks at a recent Vice profile of Isra Hirsi, the daughter of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN). Hirsi says that she was drawn to the issue “for how it disproportionately affects communities of color” despite being considered “white issues.” Branigin also brings up the example of Liberty City, “a predominantly Black neighborhood in Miami” where residents are being displaced due to climate change even before an extreme weather event: Liberty City is higher above sea level than other parts of the city that are more prone to flooding, so the area is experiencing a wave of gentrification. At the end of the piece, Hirsi states that the actions of millions of her peers help her stay motivated to fight climate change.
Calls to tell stories of climate change’s impacts on disabled people as a public failure, not of personal tragedy: In Truthout, Julia Watts Belser explains how “Deaf and disabled people are especially vulnerable to climate disruption.” Titled “Disabled people cannot just be ‘expected losses’ in climate disasters,” the piece addresses the obstacle of “framing disability and climate change as a problem of physical vulnerability” in the face of climate disaster, instead reframing the issue as “a public failure: a devastating indictment of the deadly cost of ableism and inequality.” Belser notes that a burgeoning disability justice movement is now a leading voice among climate justice activists.
Climate change is amplifying the intensity of extreme weather events, including extreme heat, drought and flooding, and hurricanes. Unfortunately, broadcast TV news shows rarely make this link. During coverage of Hurricane Dorian this year, CBS was the only outlet to run a segment linking the destructiveness of the storm to climate change. During California’s destructive wildfires last November, broadcast TV news mentioned climate change in less than 4% of their wildfire segments. And out of 127 segments aired on 2018’s deadly summer heat wave, only one mentioned climate change.
Here are some great topics connecting climate change to extreme weather that were covered as a part of the Covering Climate Now initiative:
Reporters can (and should) talk about climate change in the middle of a hurricane: Broadcast TV news’ failure to link climate change to hurricanes flies in the face of what their viewers actually want to hear. Nexus Media cites recent polling showing that 49% of U.S. voters believe it is appropriate to talk climate change when reporting on a storm, while 11% said reporters should wait until a day or two after the storm. Polling also shows that five in 10 Americans believe that climate change worsened hurricanes like Florence and Michael. According to John Kotcher of the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, “Reporters shouldn’t really shy away from talking about the connection between climate change and extreme weather events like Dorian.” Kotcher adds that if reporters are concerned that their viewers might give negative feedback, “Our research suggests that really shouldn’t be a barrier here.” Indeed, local TV weathercasters are leading the way on this front: The Guardian details how several local weathercasters have used the Climate Matters reporting program to communicate scientific information about climate change and extreme weather to their viewers.
Extreme weather affects different regions in different ways: VTDigger’s Elizabeth Gribkoff takes an in-depth look at the myriad ways that extreme weather has affected Vermont. Gribkoff writes that the number of “so-called ‘hot days’ in the Green Mountain state” that lead to heat-related illnesses has sharply risen alongside the number of high-intensity storms in the state. These extreme weather events have affected other issues like Vermont’s ski season and the quality of its soil as well. Over at The Oklahoman, Kayla Branch looks at the recent drought in Oklahoma that had a ripple effect on the state’s economy, leading to crop failure and loss of jobs. Branch spoke with a former director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, who said, “In our future, there is a drought that will be more severe than the one that happened. So we have to be constantly vigilant in how we are analyzing and securing a reliable water supply for our communities.” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists looks at how climate change is affecting the Great Lakes, noting that “all the lakes are up between 12 and 30 inches above the long-term average,” which will lead to more flooding disasters.
Lack of climate voices from women and youth activists
Broadcast TV networks have long failed to adequately feature women’s voices when covering climate change. In 2018, women made up only 19% of people who were interviewed, featured, or quoted in climate change segments on the broadcast networks’ nightly and Sunday news shows. In 2014, one Media Matters analysis found that women made up less than 15% of guests quoted in the media on U.N. climate reports.
Although mainstream media did a fairly good job of covering the youth climate strikes of September 20, this wasn’t always the case: Media dropped the ball on covering the first wave of big strikes in March, as neither NBC’s Today nor ABC news shows aired a single segment. Below are some of the topics media reported on in their coverage of women’s and young activists’ voices as part of the Covering Climate Now initiative:
Women’s voices are sorely needed in climate conversations worldwide: Writing for Bustle, Stephenie Livingston details how discussion around climate change in the U.S. often leaves out millions of women from rural communities, who “have a deep connection to the land and a unique perspective on the ways the climate is changing.” In a long story for Lithub, Brown University professor Elizabeth Rush describes her time in Antarctica, the “Last Male Sanctuary," and suggests how to find new narratives when discussing climate change’s effects on the continent and its endangered glaciers. “During the majority of the two hundred years since humans first saw the southern-most continent, women weren’t welcome,” she notes, and gives an overview of the small number of books written by women about the region that are essential reading to understand “what the ice demands: that we work together to survive.”
Students affected by Hurricane Maria lead climate strikes: Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, but media coverage of the disaster was severely lacking. Alleen Brown at The Intercept interviews students of “Generation Maria” and to illustrate how their experiences helped shape their views on climate change. One student explains that Maria “gave us not only a sense of what’s in us, but also a reality check telling us that climate change is real — to tell us that we need to fight.” Another student says their experience of the climate crisis was shaped by the storm, saying, “It’s not being able to imagine yourself in a stable future because there’s so much uncertainty around it. … I don’t think that’s the way anyone should have to visualize their own future.” The students have rallied around a name: “la generación del ‘yo no me dejo,’” or “the generation of ‘I’m not going to let you do this to me.’”
Feminism is essential to the climate justice movement: Teen Vogue speaks to four climate activists about how feminism informs their work. Writer Mara Dolan notes that although women “perform more work that is directly dependent on the environment,” decision makers on climate policy are overwhelmingly men. The piece details how defending both women’s and community’s rights, shifting resources and money to the grassroots movements doing work on the ground, crafting policies with gender in mind, and adopting intergenerational dialogue from older feminist movements are all essential to incorporating feminism within the climate justice movement.
These stories and many others helped make the Covering Climate Now initiative so successful and led to a massive increase in media attention during the month of September. Broadcast TV news would do well to look at these undercovered climate issues for inspiration to better inform their viewers about the crisis we all face.