The nation’s first major heat wave of the summer affected close to one-third of the population, setting numerous one-day temperature records and claiming at least six lives. In New York City, at least 50,000 people lost electricity, and in some other major East Coast metro areas, warm nighttime temperatures approached record-high minimums. Climate change is amplifying the frequency and severity of heat waves such as last week’s, and unchecked carbon dioxide emissions will lead to more dangerously hot days in the future.
Media Matters reviewed heat wave coverage from national TV news shows and local newspapers for mentions of climate change between July 15 and 22. Some segments and stories on the heat wave included context about how climate change is a driver of extreme heat, but not nearly enough, and too many of those that did mention climate change fell short of communicating the scale of the crisis facing us -- especially right after last month was declared to be the planet's “hottest June on record.” Ultimately, mainstream media need to do a much better job of regularly incorporating climate change in their coverage of extreme weather events.
CBS led the way in including climate change in heat wave reporting
Among national broadcast networks, CBS was the clear leader in discussing climate change in the context of the heat wave on its major news programs, doing so on four different episodes. ABC made only one glancing mention of climate change in its heat wave coverage, and NBC did not mention climate change at all.
CBS This Morning aired a strong segment on July 18 in which meteorologist Jeff Berardelli explained that “there is a direct connection between more extreme heat and climate change.” CBS Evening News incorporated climate change into its heat wave reporting during three episodes last week -- the debut week for new anchor Norah O'Donnell. On the July 16 episode, O'Donnell mentioned that scientists link climate change to extreme heat. The July 19 episode featured respected climate scientist Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who said, “In the last decade, we've seen record after record be broken when it comes to heat waves. And this is a symptom of the fact that the planet as a whole is getting warmer.” On the July 20 episode, a snippet of Gavin’s interview was featured in the show’s introduction, and a longer segment on the heat wave included more footage of Schmidt, who said, “It’s not just a theoretical thing that’s far in the future. The impacts of climate change are happening right now, right here.”
ABC's only mention of climate change during heat wave reporting came on the July 21 episode of Good Morning America. While discussing the high overnight temperatures the heat wave brought, meteorologist Rob Marciano said that “you’ve got the urban development, you’ve got climate change, all compiling for this sort of stuff.”
Last summer, neither ABC nor NBC mentioned climate change in their reporting on another deadly U.S. heat wave that spanned almost two weeks. Out of 127 news segments aired on that heat wave, only one, on CBS This Morning, discussed climate change.
Prime-time cable news shows largely avoided mention of how climate change drives extreme heat
Only two major cable news network shows airing between 4 p.m. and midnight mentioned climate change in the context of the heat wave -- and one of them, on Fox News, did so mockingly.
On the July 18 episode of Fox's Hannity, host Sean Hannity attacked Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) for linking climate change to the heat wave, stating, “Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez tonight is also out there promoting her radical green agenda and using this summer's heat -- imagine that, heat in summer -- as evidence of climate change. You can't make this up.” This should come as no surprise, given Hannity’s obsession with talking about Ocasio-Cortez and his scientifically illiterate views on climate change.
CNN was the other major cable network to bring up climate change in the context of the heat wave, during the 4 o’clock hour of July 20’s Newsroom. Louisville, KY, Mayor Greg Fischer (D) described the heat wave’s effect on his city and noted how it opened the door for discussion about climate change:
We take this as an opportunity just to talk about climate change and the need to forest your communities more and the need to decarbonize your cities more. … You know, just imagine as a country if we said we want to put as much energy into having a carbon-neutral society as we did putting a man on the moon. That would certainly help our weather and the heat waves that we are having here in the future.
MSNBC did not air a single prime-time segment that mentioned climate change when discussing the heat wave.
Our findings on cable coverage align with a trend we've been observing this year: When cable networks talk climate change, it’s usually Fox News that leads the way, and it downplays or outright denies the severity of the issue.
Missed opportunities for some newspaper articles, but also a few good examples
A number of newspapers in major cities affected by the heat wave reported on the event but did not offer climate context. The Detroit Free-Press, for example, ran several news articles on the heat wave, but not one of them mentioned climate change’s role in exacerbating excessive heat. Same thing with The Kansas City Star and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, despite the fact that last year's National Climate Assessment reported that one effect of climate change is that “compared to other regions where worsening heat is also expected to occur, the Midwest is projected to have the largest increase in extreme temperature-related premature deaths.” This is important context for local readers to understand.
Outside of the Midwest, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on the heat wave with an article titled “Philly had its hottest day of the year, but it’s about to get hotter, and nights won’t be much cooler” -- yet even though the headline practically begs for a mention of climate change, there were none in the article.
Other newspapers in affected cities did mention climate change in their heat wave reporting. Joe Martucci of The Press of Atlantic City noted that “longer heat waves are becoming more common” and included a graphic from Climate Central showing that the average length of heat waves in the city has increased since 1970. He included the same graphic in another article the next day. Reporting on how the heat wave could be risky for elderly citizens, Tess Vrbin of the Hartford Courant wrote that Hartford, CT, “could have as many as 44 days above 90 degrees by 2050 if the U.S. and other nations fail to take decisive action to slow climate change.” The Chicago Sun-Times dedicated an editorial to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ recent report on projected increases in extreme heat in the U.S. due to climate change, and noted that high heat in Chicago will get worse in the future unless action is taken to curb carbon emissions. Finally, Will Bunch of The Philadelphia Inquirer made clear the link between climate change and the heat wave in a recent opinion piece on how it’s misguided for Pennsylvania to continue fracking.
The science and the resources are there to help media outlets link climate change to heat waves
Climate scientists can say with high confidence that climate change is amplifying heat waves and making them more extreme. One study of a major Northern Hemisphere heat wave last summer found that it “could not have occurred without human-induced climate change,” and other so-called attribution studies have found that climate change made major heat waves much more likely.
It’s important for the media to make this connection to keep viewers and readers informed of how extreme heat will only get worse in the future unless carbon emissions are drastically cut. Kudos to CBS for doing a better job than last year communicating climate change’s link to the heat wave, but other TV news outlets and many newspapers in affected regions must do a better job.
Media Matters searched the Nexis database for transcripts of ABC’s Good Morning America and World News Tonight; CBS’ CBS This Morning and CBS Evening News; NBC’s Today and Nightly News; prime-time shows from 4 p.m to 12 a.m. on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC; and The Detroit Free-Press, The Kansas City Star, and The St. Louis Post-Dispatch containing the words (heat OR “extreme heat” OR “heat wave” OR “heat waves” OR heatwave OR heatwaves OR temperature OR temperatures OR hot) AND (“climate change” OR “global warming”) between July 15 and July 22, 2019. We also conducted a less comprehensive Google site search of additional newspapers in the Northeast and other areas affected by the heat wave. Media Matters did not include Associated Press or national reprinted articles in its newspaper search.