Andrea Austria / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

Climate solutions coverage on broadcast news programs declined in 2023

Corporate broadcast news coverage of Earth Day could boost the quantity and quality of coverage in 2024

In 2023, corporate broadcast news mentioned climate solutions in only 22% of climate segments, or 95 out of 435 — a decline from the previous three years. 2023 broke a trend of improvement in quantity of climate solutions coverage: Solutions were mentioned in 29% of segments in 2020, 31% of segments in 2021, and reached a zenith of 35% in 2022.

In general, discussion of solutions should happen alongside discussions of the myriad climate impacts, including extreme weather, that make up the bulk of climate reporting on broadcast TV news. The best coverage of climate solutions does two things: It centers on solutions that are at scale with what is needed to reduce carbon emissions, and it avoids — or at the very least vets — solutions pushed by corporations and fossil fuel interests, which often do little to tackle the root cause of global warming.

As Earth Day coverage ramps up, this study looks at which networks have led the way on climate solutions coverage, how networks covered solutions in 2023, and what networks can do to improve this coverage in April and beyond.

  • CBS was the best-performing network in terms of volume of climate solutions segments

  • CBS led its competitors in climate solutions coverage, mentioning solutions in 49 segments (33% of its segments), followed by NBC with 28 (20% of its segments) and ABC with 17 (12%). The vast majority of these segments on CBS (37) aired on the network’s morning news program CBS Mornings. CBS has led on climate solutions coverage for the last three years running — in fact, the network has led the field in overall volume of climate coverage since at least 2020.

    One example illustrates the nuance the network brings to climate solutions coverage. A segment that aired on May 1 addressed one common critique of renewable energy sources — the environmental impact of wind turbine blades and solar panels that are no longer in use. The segment featured a company that recycles renewable energy materials, keeping them out of landfills. The segment provided key context around this subject, including that solar is the fastest growing energy source in the U.S. and that renewable energy is key to addressing climate change by allowing us to move away from fossil fuels while addressing a side effect of the rapid buildout of renewable energy, which has been exploited by bad faith actors.

  • The highest concentration of climate solution coverage came in April

  • Nearly a quarter (23%) of segments mentioning climate solutions aired during April — a month when networks typically elevate their climate and environmental coverage in observation of Earth Day. In April the networks aired almost two times as many segments featuring climate solutions as they did in July, the month with the second highest volume of climate solutions coverage. During the week leading up to Earth Day, corporate broadcast TV networks ABC, CBS, and NBC spent a combined 182 minutes — just over three hours — discussing climate and environmental issues.

    NBC led with climate solutions coverage in April, with 9 segments, followed by CBS with 8 and ABC with 5. Notably, while CBS and ABC had their peak overall coverage in July, NBC’s was in April, when it aired 1 hour of climate coverage.

    One climate solutions segment that appeared on NBC, during the April 20 edition of NBC Nightly News, discussed local climate solutions related to food waste while connecting the effort to the broader climate crisis. Correspondent Anne Thompson noted, “Each year, food loss and waste in the U.S. produces emissions equal to the planet-warming carbon dioxide from 42 coal-fired power plants.”

  • The most-discussed climate solutions were renewable energy technologies and adaptation

  • The largest share of solutions coverage focused not on mitigation of climate change but on adaptation to it — mentioned in 29 segments — showing that coverage has started to more regularly acknowledge that we are already living in a world affected by a changed climate. These mentions ranged from discussion of climate change-resistant crops and tree planting campaigns intended to mitigate heat in urban areas to consideration of where people live given that the warming climate’s sea-level rise and extreme weather are making some locations increasingly uninhabitable.

    Renewable technologies such as solar and wind energy were mentioned in 22 segments. The topics ranged from action taken by the Biden administration to drive renewables to the role of renewable energy in meeting international climate agreements to even challenges faced by renewable energy.

  • Corporate broadcast TV news is vetting fringe and false solutions

  • Broadcast TV networks gave little airtime to fringe or false solutions. Fringe solutions are those that are generally unproved or prohibitively expensive like carbon capture and sequestration. False solutions are those that would not make any meaningful difference, such as carbon offsets, or represent questionable strategies for solving climate change, like many corporate net zero pledges. False solutions have also derived from industry or conservative talking points — like fracked natural gas as a bridge fuel and “clean coal.”

    Unlike in previous years, broadcast networks did not discuss carbon offsets as a viable climate solution for industry and corporations in our monitoring. Carbon capture technology appeared in only 2 segments — and in both cases the technology was discussed in relation to a new proposed power plant rule that identifies carbon capture technology as one way carbon-intensive power sources could reduce emissions.

    ABC’s World News Tonight reported on the rule when it was announced on May 11, noting, “A new rule will allow power plants to use carbon capture to reduce their emissions while still burning fossil fuels.”

    During the June 29 edition of CBS Mornings, senior national and environmental correspondent Ben Tracy did a deeper dive into the technology while reporting on the new rule, noting that “some critics say that carbon capture is actually an expensive and misguided distraction in the fight against climate change.”

    Two segments referenced geoengineering, a controversial approach to addressing climate impacts.

    ABC’s Good Morning America aired a segment on April 18 on efforts to address the water shortages happening along the Colorado River, which included a discussion of “weather modification or cloud seeding.”

    And CBS Saturday Mornings aired a segment on April 22 about some limited scientific support for geoengineering due to the fact that climate change mitigation efforts are not ramping up fast enough. The segment focused on solar engineering — a set of technologies to cool the earth by reflecting sunlight back into space.

    CBS’ Tracy once again approached the subject critically, asking two individuals experimenting with geoengineering to cool the earth, “Should a couple of tech bros be the guys experimenting with this with no scientific background?”

    The segment made it clear that shifting away from fossil fuels is still necessary and that these technologies are “a sign of desperation” and are thought by some critics to be dangerous. 

  • Corporate broadcast TV news is generally not connecting climate solutions to the drivers of climate change (fossil fuels) and to climate-fueled extreme weather events

  • Only 7 segments that mentioned climate solutions also mentioned the phrase fossil fuels. In fact, overall, only 12% of climate segments on corporate broadcast news, or 52 out of 435, mentioned the phrase “fossil fuels.” Networks need to better articulate the problem — the burning of fossil fuels — in order to present the best solutions to audiences. 

    In one positive example, ABC explicitly tied fossil fuels to environmental degradation and solutions during its Earth Day coverage. Reporting on the role of plastics in consumer products on the April 21 edition of Good Morning America, guest Anna Robertson of The Cool Down — a climate and sustainability media platform — said plastic is “created by using fossil fuels, which create pollution in our atmosphere.” The segment went on to offer consumer-based solutions to reducing plastic use.

    While it is prudent to offer audiences accessible individual solutions during Earth Day coverage, Earth Day has unfortunately often been co-opted by corporations to promote “green consumerism” and put the onus of solving climate change on individual people rather than the industries that are most responsible for carbon emissions.

    While individual actions are important in solving climate change, and mass consumption drives many of the climate and environmental problems that the planet faces today, this approach to sustainability is problematic because what’s really needed to solve the climate crisis is widespread societal change and collective action that forces a rapid reduction in fossil fuel use.

    While networks fell short in connecting climate solutions to the broader issue of fossil fuel emissions, they did a better job connecting solutions directly to sectors that contribute to global emissions. For example, there were 7 segments that discussed solutions to make the fashion industry — which contributes up to 10% of global carbon dioxide output — more sustainable. There were also 7 segments that discussed solutions related to the transportation sector, which is the largest contributor to climate pollution, and there were 9 segments discussing solutions within the food industry (food waste alone contributes 10% of global emissions).

    Likewise, networks should integrate discussions of solutions into extreme weather coverage and other moments when climate change’s impacts are the most visible. Major extreme weather events garner a high volume of coverage across morning and evening news programs, but too often this coverage does not include discussions about how to mitigate the emissions that are driving increasingly destructive and deadly weather events. In 2023, only 2% (10 of 435) of segments mentioned both an extreme weather event and a climate solution.

    In one positive example, during the July 26 edition of CBS Mornings the network aired an interview with climate policy expert Leah Stokes, who discussed the connection between last summer’s historic heat waves and climate change and the need to stop burning fuels. The segment concluded with Tracy pointing out that “demand for electric vehicles is accelerating and renewable energy is more abundant and cheaper than ever, but unless we dramatically cut planet-warming emissions this record hot summer might be the coolest one we have left.”

    But this example is the exception, not the rule. In order to tell the full story of the climate crisis, broadcast news networks have to clearly connect climate solutions to both the problem and the impacts those solutions seek to address.

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched transcripts in the Nexis and SnapStream databases for ABC’s Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and This Week; CBS’ Mornings, Saturday Morning, Sunday Morning, CBS Evening News, Weekend News, and Face the Nation; NBC’s Today, Sunday Today, NBC Nightly News, and Meet the Press for any of the terms and any derivations of the terms “climate,” “global warming,” “global heating,” “global temperatures,” “warmer planet,” “warming planet,” “planet warms,” “warmer globe,” “warming globe,” “globe warms,” “rising temperatures,” “hotter temperatures,” “green new deal,” “emissions,” “greenhouse gases,” or “net zero” from January 1, 2023, through December 31, 2023.

    We included any segment where climate change was the stated topic of discussion, as well as news rundowns that included a substantial mention of climate change, which we defined as a paragraph or more of a news transcript or a block of uninterrupted speech by a host, anchor, or correspondent. We also included weather reports, which we defined as instances when climate change was mentioned in an extreme weather report by a meteorologist in front of a green screen. We also included instances of a guest mentioning climate change in a network correspondent segment if the context of the segment was clearly about a climate, energy, or environmental issue.

    We did not include teasers if they were for segments that aired later during the same program.

    We timed identified segments using the Snapstream or Kinetiq video databases, or YouTube if a network posted the segment to that website.

    We rounded all times to the nearest minute and all percentages to the nearest whole number. To determine the total program time, we averaged running time without commercials for a sample of each program.

    We considered a segment as including climate solutions if it discussed technologies or actions to mitigate carbon emissions or adapt to climate impacts.