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Only 5% of national TV news segments on the record-shattering heat wave that scorched Texas mentioned climate change

Throughout the recent record-breaking and deadly heat wave that affected millions across Texas and other parts of the Southwest, major TV networks largely failed to report on the links between climate change and the extreme heat.

Over a two-week period from June 15-29, an analysis by Media Matters found:

  • Only 5% of the 310 segments and weathercasts about the heat wave across national TV news mentioned climate change.
  • Major cable news networks – CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC – aired 187 segments or weathercasts about the heat wave, but only 8 mentioned climate change. MSNBC mentioned the connection between the extreme heat and climate change 5 times and CNN mentioned it 3.
  • Corporate broadcast networks – ABC, CBS, and NBC – aired a combined 123 segments or weathercasts that discussed the heat wave, but only 7 mentioned climate change. ABC led the way with 5 mentions, while CBS and NBC each mentioned the connection between extreme heat and climate change once.
  • The heat dome that gripped Texas for more than two weeks was deadly, costly, and record-shattering

  • The heat dome that parked over Texas and neighboring states, including Louisiana, kept temperatures in the triple digits for days on end and pushed heat indexes past 120 degrees.

    Repeated and lengthy exposure to heat can increase the risk of health impacts over the long-term but can also be deadly in the short-term, especially to vulnerable populations. As The New York Times reported: “Outdoor workers and older adults have been deemed particularly vulnerable, but the latest Texas heat wave is gripping everyone in some way.”

    Several deaths have already been attributed to the extreme heat, while hospitals across the region are reporting a rise in heat-related illnesses. NBC correspondent Sam Brock reported on June 29, “In Texas and Louisiana alone, so far at least 11 confirmed fatalities. It’s a figure that we almost certainly think, tragically, will be rising.” Notably, Fox News senior meteorologist Janice Dean has repeatedly pointed out during her coverage that heat is responsible for the highest number of weather-related deaths — dispelling the false narrative often pushed by right-wing media (including other Fox personalities) that cold is more deadly than heat, a talking point used to undermine the danger of our warming planet.

    Public health is not the only issue exacerbated by extreme heat. Severe and prolonged heat has once again exposed the vulnerabilities of Texas’ independent and loosely regulated power grid, which hit a record for demand in June with the grid operator issuing calls for conservation to keep the teetering grid from faltering. But while the Texas grid has so far been able to keep up with demand, it is coming with a hefty price that will likely be passed on to consumers.

    As CNN News Central reported on June 28, “With these temperatures hitting records and spiking, that also means energy prices are spiking as well.” Correspondent Rosa Flores added that the cost to generate power is about 100 times more than normal, and that these additional costs could hit consumers. Energy expert Ed Hirs of the University of Houston noted: “They may see it in the next bill as a surcharge, a weather-related and grid-related surcharge coming down from ERCOT, and they will certainly see it in higher rates reflected for next year.”

  • Video file

    Citation From the June 28, 2023, edition of CNN News Central

  • (The excessive heat has also impacted roadways: Houston Public Media reported, “There have been at least 10 instances during the last two weeks in which roadways have sustained damage because of the prolonged heat or buckled entirely.”)

  • Climate change made this excessive heat at least 5 times more likely

  • There is overwhelming scientific evidence that human-induced climate change is exacerbating both the frequency and intensity of heat waves. The heat wave scorching Texas, rather than being typical summer weather for the state, is “exceptional for its intensity and duration.”

    As ABC’s Good Morning America weekend co-anchor Janai Norman reported from San Antonio, “This type of heat is not new to Texas, of course, though it is early — more typical in July and August. But experts say this ongoing heat wave is more likely because of human-caused climate change that is warming the atmosphere and amplifying extreme temperatures.” A number of meteorologists across major TV networks made similar statements to differentiate this extreme heat event from what places like Texas typically experience in the summer.

    CNN meteorologist Derek Van Dam explicitly dispelled the idea that this is normal Texas heat: “People say, ‘Hey, look, Houston gets hot, it gets to 100 degrees.’ Well, the average first 100-degree day is not until July 19, and it has already reached 100 degrees twice just this week.”

  • Video file

    Citation From the June 21, 2023, edition of CNN This Morning 

  • GINGER ZEE (METEOROLOGIST): A lot of you are saying, “Come on, it's Texas in the summer.” No. This is different. Houston had their first 100. You say, “Uh huh, don't they do that in the summer?” They do. But their average first 100 is July 19. So it's about a month early. And it is prolonged. So Laredo, Texas, and San Angelo both hit their all-time highest temperature. They tied it. So that means any month of the year, the warmest.

  • In fact, an analysis by Climate Central on just the first several days of the heat wave found that “human-caused climate change made this excessive heat at least 5 times more likely.” As meteorologist Jeff Beradelli noted on Twitter, the heat dome sitting over Texas is impossible in a normal historical climate, “but climate change makes the impossible, probable.”

    CNN’s Van Dam and ABC’s Zee both used the Climate Central attribution analysis to make the connection between the heat wave and climate change.

    Zee noted on the June 23 edition of Good Morning America: “Climate Central, a group that looks at how human-induced climate change impacts things like heat waves, says that the one, at least through the weekend, would be five times more likely for heat like that because of climate change.”

  • Video file

    Citation From the June 23, 2023, edition of ABC's Good Morning America

  • MSNBC on cable and ABC on broadcast outperformed their respective counterparts, in terms of climate mentions

  • MSNBC led the cable networks in mentions of climate change within coverage of the heat wave that seared Texas and other parts of the Southwest. Two of the 5 climate segments aired during the June 28 edition of Alex Wagner Reports, which hosted Texas state Rep. James Talarico and climate journalist David Wallace-Wells.

    The first segment was aimed at holding Texas Republicans accountable for not only lack of action on climate change but also for policies, which host Alex Wagner called “inherently cruel,” that actively punishes those most vulnerable to heat, including a bill that lifted requirements to give outdoor workers water breaks, and rejecting a proposal that would have dedicated “$500 million to install air conditioners in all Texas prisons over the next decade.” The Houston Chronicle reporting on the lack of access to AC for Texas inmates noted:

  • There have been 32 Texas inmate deaths in June, none of which were attributed to heat, the New York Times reported. Of those, at least five, including a 34-year-old and 35-year-old, died of reported heart attacks or cardiac arrest in uncooled prisons when heat indices broke into triple digits, according to a Texas Tribune analysis.

  • Wagner also noted the state’s failure to address its power grid issues while pointing out that green energy, which Texas state republicans almost universally reject, is responsible for keeping the grid stabilized during the prolonged heat wave.

  • Video file

    Citation From the June 28, 2023, edition of MSNBC's Alex Wagner Reports

  • MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes also hosted Wallace-Wells for a substantive segment on the role of climate change in this extreme heat event. The June 22 episode discussed how extreme heat like what Texas experienced is expected to become the new normal, with Hayes noting: “And this heat is not a one-off. Climate scientists have been warning that, thanks to climate change, many areas, particularly Texas, can expect more hundred-degree days in future years.”

    Wallace-Wells also explained how the extreme heat will impact other states: “There's been climate science showing what they call an extreme heat belt is going to develop from Texas sort of stretching north that's going to make days like this and weeks like this, because it may stretch all the way into July, much more common.”

  • Video file

    Citation From the June 22, 2023, edition of MSNBC's All In With Chris Hayes

  • While CNN had fewer segments that mentioned climate change, it produced one of the most substantive discussions on the cost of extreme weather events like the heat wave. The June 28 edition of CNN This Morning included chief business correspondent and anchor Christine Romans and chief climate correspondent Bill Weir, who discussed the economic and public health toll of extreme weather events. Weir mentioned the Texas bill that removed the requirement giving outdoor workers water breaks every four hours, asking, “How do you survive in 122-degree temperatures if you are a roofer?” Weir also made the observation that rather than being pigeonholed by covering the climate beat, he is covering an issue that increasingly affects “every aspect of our lives.”

    ABC was responsible for 5 of the 7 corporate broadcast networks’ heat wave segments that mentioned climate change. Chief meteorologist and climate unit managing editor Zee made the connection between our warming planet and the historical heat wave during 3 of her weathercasts. In addition to utilizing the attribution analysis by Climate Central to point out that climate change made this specific event 5 times more likely, she also provided additional context on what we can expect if we fail to address global warming during a June 19 weathercast on Good Morning America:

  • GINGER ZEE (METEOROLOGIST): This is from the ICF, a climate group that shows that by 2050, if we keep on this trajectory where our emissions are high, anywhere in that dark color would see 54 more days or more over 95 degrees. That's all the way up to Tennessee, but down to Mississippi, Florida, and Texas. If we curb those emissions — our globe is naturally warming, but we are amplifying it — but if we curb them, we could get it down to 38.

  • Video file

    Citation From the June 19, 2023, edition of ABC's Good Morning America

  • Notably, Zee is among the meteorologists driving the climate coverage on corporate broadcast TV news. Last year, she was applauded for segments documenting her family’s road trip from Michigan to Florida in an electric vehicle which addressed myths about distance travel in EVs. Zee was also featured in a January 2022 New York Times article on meteorologists' role in covering the climate crisis, where she discussed her passion and commitment to communicating climate science to audiences. Her leadership in coverage of the recent heat wave underscores her commitment and highlights her role in driving climate coverage on broadcast TV news.

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original episodes of ABC’s Good Morning America, World News Tonight, CBS’ Mornings, Evening News, NBC’s Today, and Nightly News as well as all original programming on CNN, Fox New Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “heat,” “temperature,” record,” or “extreme” or any variation of any of the terms “heat wave,” “hot,” or “high” within close proximity of any of the terms “Texas,” “Lone Star,” “Louisiana,” “Dallas,” “Central America,” “Guatemala,” or “Mexico” or any variation of the term “south” from June 15, 2023, when the heat wave covering parts of Central America and the Southern United States began, through June 29, 2023.

    We included segments, which we defined as instances when the heat wave covering parts of Central America and the Southern United States was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of the heat wave. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multi-topic segment discussed the heat wave with one another. We also included weather reports, which we defined as instances when the heat wave was the stated topic of discussion by a meteorologist.

    We did not include passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker in a segment on another topic mentioned the heat wave without another speaker in the segment engaging with the comment, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the host or anchor promoted a segment about the heat wave scheduled to air later in the broadcast.

    We then reviewed all identified segments and weather reports for mentions of the terms “climate” or “global warming.”