Research/Study Research/Study

TV news largely failed to connect climate change to landmark deal to conserve water from the Colorado River Basin

  • On May 22, California, Arizona and Nevada announced a landmark agreement to conserve water from the Colorado River Basin, joining with Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming in efforts to thwart the disastrous environmental and socio-economic impacts of extreme climate-fueled drought in the region. However, Media Matters found that broadcast and cable news coverage of the historic agreement largely failed to identify climate change as a driver of the Southwest water crisis: 

    • Between May 22 and 26, corporate broadcast aired 3 segments and cable news aired 8 segments about the seven Southwestern U.S. states announcing a deal to conserve water consumption from the Colorado River Basin — just 1 broadcast and 3 cable segments mentioned climate change.
    • On cable, CNN aired 5 segments, MSNBC aired 2 segments, and Fox News aired just a single segment about the deal.
    • On broadcast, CBS aired 2 segments, ABC aired 1 segment, and NBC did not cover the deal at all.
    • CNN aired 2 segments that identified climate change as a factor in the extreme drought predating the agreement, and MSNBC aired 1 segment that mentioned climate change. Fox did not mention climate in its single segment on the agreement.
    • Just 1 of the 2 CBS segments mentioned climate, and ABC’s lone segment on the deal failed to link it to climate change.

    The Colorado River Basin, which services water to 40 million people and 5 million acres of farmland across Mexico and the Southwestern United States, is in extreme crisis due to chronic overconsumption and a historic drought exacerbated by climate change.  

    The historic new agreement brokered by the Biden administration commits states to conserve at least 3 million-acre-feet of water through the end of 2026. In return, states will receive $1.2 billion in grants from the Inflation Reduction Act that will compensate water districts, farm operators, cities, and Native American tribes.

    While not the “Green New Deal”-esque climate policy upheaval described in right-wing media’s fearmongering, the Inflation Reduction Act provides the federal funding to make the new Colorado River Basin pact feasible. However, the funding and the agreement itself represent only one small policy victory in the fight to stave off the worst impacts of our changing climate. 

    Climate change has already increased average temperatures in the Southwest by 2 degrees F over the last 100 years, and temperatures are expected to rise an additional 3.5 to 9.5 degrees F by the end of the century, making the agreement between the states a crucial but short-term solution.  

    Accurate reporting that highlights how our changing climate can amplify threats to water supplies, Indigenous tribes, and regional economies — along with identifying potential solutions — is essential for audiences to understand the threat of the climate crisis. While cable news and broadcast media coverage of the climate is improving, outlets are often stymied by a decades-long misinformation campaign driven by the fossil fuel industry that still jeopardizes climate policy. 

    In the face of persistent misinformation and outright climate denialism, cable and broadcast news networks have an obligation to their viewers to thoroughly explain the damage climate change is already wreaking on many Americans, as well as the immediate policy actions that can be taken to prevent further disaster.

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original episodes of ABC’s Good Morning America and World News Tonight, CBS’ Mornings and Evening News, and NBC’s Today and Nightly News as well as all original programming on CNN, Fox New Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “river,” “water,” “power,” “agreement,” “compact,” “deal,” “crisis,” “disaster,” “reservoir,” “acre-feet”, “Powell,” “Mead,” or “Hoover Dam” or any variation of term “irrigate” within close proximity of any of the terms “Colorado,” “California,” “Nevada,” “Arizona,” “Lower Basin,” “Upper Basin,” “New Mexico,” “Utah,” “Wyoming,” “Colorado,” “Mexico,” or “native” or any variation of either of the terms “southwest” or “tribe” from May 22, 2023, when seven Southwestern U.S. states announced a deal to conserve water consumption from the Colorado River Basin, through May 26, 2023.

    We included segments, which we defined as instances when the deal between seven U.S. Southwestern states to reduce water consumption from the Colorado River Basin was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of the agreement. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multi-topic segment discussed the deal with one another.

    We did not include passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker in a segment on another topic mentioned the agreement 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 deal scheduled to air later in the broadcast.

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