With Texas Floods, Media Step Up Coverage Of Link Between Climate Change And Extreme Weather

Bill Nye CNN

“The floods in Texas, the strengthening storms ... these things are a result of human activity making things worse.”  

On CNN, Bill Nye provided this necessary climate change context to the devastating floods, which killed dozens last week in Oklahoma and Texas, where new monthly rain records were set. But this time, it isn't just “the Science Guy” who is connecting the dots. While past media coverage has largely failed to explain the role of climate change in extreme weather events like wildfires, snowstorms and droughts, Nye's CNN appearance was just one of many examples of major media outlets covering the recent floods in a science-based global warming context, a promising sign that the press is beginning to do more to address the relationship between climate change and extreme weather.

In recent days, the role of human-induced climate change in devastating weather events like the floods was also a featured story on both NBC's Nightly News and the CBS Evening News. On NBC, anchor Lester Holt introduced a report about Texas's “weather whiplash” in which national correspondent Miguel Almaguer explained that "[s]cientists say climate change is exacerbating the wild swings."

On CBS, correspondent Kris Van Cleave noted that a new study by researchers at Rutgers University found that “climate change in the Arctic is slowing the jet stream over the Northern Hemisphere,” resulting in prolonged weather conditions that lead to more heavy rain, heat waves, droughts, and snowstorms. As Rutgers climatologist David Robinson explained during the CBS segment: “Everything slows, and with it, weather patterns persist over areas for longer periods of time. That could make a wet situation dangerously wet ... [and] a heat wave dangerously long.”

CNN's coverage of the floods has also stood out. CNN's Carol Costello began her May 29 interview with Nye by affirming that “97 percent of scientists say climate change is real and much of it is driven by man,” and what followed was a helpful discussion about how the floods demonstrate the need for media to “talk about” climate change.

In covering the floods and climate change, CNN also turned to a climate scientist and their own meteorologists to discuss the subject. On May 27, CNN host Don Lemon referenced the heat wave in India, snowstorms in Boston, and drought in California, and then asked meteorologist and weather correspondent Chad Myers: “Can we say this is climate change?” Myers responded that it was a “very real possibility, and even the flooding in Texas possibly,” adding that “drought, heavy rains, coastal flooding and heat waves, that's all on the docket for a strong climate change forecast.” On May 30, CNN anchor George Howell noted that India has seen an increase in extreme heat" due to climate change," and then turned to CNN weather anchor Derek Van Dam to discuss the extreme weather in Texas.

And on the May 28 edition of CNN's New Day, host Michaela Pereira noted that the communities affected by the floods are “trying to pick up the pieces and now questioning what role climate change may have played in that disaster.” Pereira interviewed Columbia University climate scientist Radley Horton, who explained that “we are seeing an increase in heavy rain events associated with increasing greenhouse gases,” and that the “warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture [which] tends to fall out in these kinds of heavy rain events that we're observing.”  

MSNBC, the cable news network that often leads the way in reporting on the relationship between climate change and extreme weather, continued to do so in its coverage of the floods, devoting four separate segments to the topic. MSNBC's Ed Schultz invited Nye on his program to explain why climate change “should be part of the conversation” ; Chris Matthews discussed how “climate change contributes to harsh weather conditions” with the director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, Jeffrey Sachs; and meteorologist Paul Douglas explained on the Ed Show that the science is “suggesting that weather systems increasingly are getting stuck, and that creates more whiplash.” Additionally, in a segment discussing the flooding in Texas and Oklahoma, MSNBC's The Cycle reported that “President Obama says the government must act now to counter the effects of climate change that are causing this type of catastrophic flooding.”

Of course, not all of the coverage has been good; Fox News only brought up climate change in its flood coverage in order to suggest that the tragedy is being exploited by environmental advocates.* But overall, the coverage of the recent floods provides hope that mainstream media outlets will continue to increasingly connect the dots between climate change and extreme weather events.

*Based on a search of internal video archives for “climate” or “global warming.”