As FAIR has documented (e.g., Media Advisory, 2/19/13; Extra!, 2/11, 7/07), climate change is rarely mentioned on the network evening news or Sunday talkshows. Media Matters for America recently confirmed the phenomenon: Its January 16, 2014, report found that ABC’s This Week, NBC’s Meet the Press and CBS’s Face the Nation devoted only 27 minutes to the topic in 2013 (though that was up from eight minutes in 2012).
So it was remarkable that on February 16, 2014, all three programs featured the topic prominently, hooked to the nation’s crippling winter storms and devastating drought. In one day, they devoted more time to climate than they had the entire previous year—nearly 40 minutes.
Unfortunately, quality didn’t match quantity, reflecting the “balance as bias” framework (Extra!, 11/04) of years past, with scientists debating nonscientists and facts vying with opinions and political platforms—sometimes to the point of incoherence.
Online outlets (Politico, 2/16/14; Salon, 2/19/14) have already excoriated the comments by these shows’ guests. But the hosts and producers bear ultimate responsibility for conceiving and guiding the discussion that ensued.
Rightly coming in for the most heat was NBC’s Meet the Press. After two segments on the Winter Olympics, the show focused on what host David Gregory mislabeled “the politics of weather,” starting with a 13-and-a-half-minute “debate” on climate-change policy between bow-tied engineer and TV personality Bill Nye the Science Guy and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R.-Tenn.).
Gregory began by acknowledging that “in the scientific community, this is not really a debate about whether climate change is real. The consensus is that it is.” But he appeared to suggest that who was responsible was more controversial: “The majority of those [scientists] believe, in fact, that it is caused by humans. There are certainly some in the scientific community who don’t believe that’s the case and who are skeptical about some of those conclusions.”
In a taped clip, NBC weathercaster Al Roker echoed these doubts: “Is it a natural cycle? Is it due to human interference or human conditions that we have created? That remains open to debate.”
Gregory’s framing of the issue likewise emphasized conflict. Talking about Britain’s flooding, he said: “The chief scientist of UK’s National Weather Service said all the evidence suggests climate change is to blame. Skeptics say the forecasts of doom and gloom are overblown.”
To his credit, Gregory did push back on Blackburn’s string of denialist objections, trying to steer the discussion back to his original question: “Is the growing cost of our recent weather disasters creating a new focus on the need for action on climate change?”
GREGORY: Of the many Republican members of the Congress I know personally, the vast majority do not reject the underlying science of global warming....
BLACKBURN: Well, I think that what you have to do is look at what that warming is. And when you look at the fact that we have gone from 320 parts [of carbon dioxide] per million, 0.032 to 0.040, to 400 parts per million, what you do is realize it’s very slight.
As Nye later pointed out, the increase is 30 percent—hardly slight. But how seriously are we to take climate-science analyses from a legislator with a BS in home economics anyway? Or, for that matter, federal policy prescriptions from a celebrity science host? When Gregory asked Nye about whether executive fiat is an appropriate way to make climate policy, he rambled about his own patriotism and made the vague recommendation that “it would be in everybody’s best interest to get going, to just do, as I like to say, everything all at once.”
The unhelpful debate was followed by a roundtable (2/16/14) on the economic and partisan hurdles to climate action in Washington. This time, the talkers were mainstream journalists (NBC political director Chuck Todd and AP White House correspondent Julie Pace) and politicos (former Bill Clinton advisor David Axelrod and former George W. Bush communications director Nicolle Wallace). Unfortunately, the chat was marred by its own form of denial.
For example, Axelrod acknowledged that “something is happening out there and it’s serious,” but implied its causes are still ambiguous. And, according to Todd: “There are a lot of people that say okay, let’s not debate who’s right, man-made or is it just nature…. It doesn’t matter.” Rather, Todd said, we should “table this debate” and start working on adaptation.
All seemed to agree that partisan politics prevent any useful climate action by the Obama administration—especially since, as Wallace stated, any sacrifices by America (“cut off both our arms, both our legs”) “might not make a dent in it” unless developing nations join us. No one pointed out that the US is the world’s second-highest emitter of greenhouse gases (about 20 percent)—one of those “irrelevant” underlying causes.
ABC’s This Week, with George Stephanopoulos, put the climate and weather nexus at the top of the show. After a clear explanation of current weather conditions by meteorologist Ginger Zee, Stephanopoulos moved to the main topic. Again, the set-up to the talk raised a fictitious controversy, this time between two scientists over whether “the extremes of one year [are] related to climate change.” (While it’s true we can’t say an isolated event was “caused by” climate change, by definition all kinds of weather are affected in some way by excessive greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.)
Stephanopoulos’ leading questions—“Why so much extreme weather? How can we cope with the consequences and the costs?”—were a mashup of scientific, practical and financial considerations. The guests asked to parse it included North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, ABC business and economics correspondent Rebecca Jarvis and Climate Central climatologist Dr. Heidi Cullen—the only real climate expert invited to any of the three network Sunday shows that week (although she was the last asked to speak in her segment).
Most of the discussion centered on the price tag and governing headaches of being buried under snow or parched by drought, then moved to Cullen’s welcome breakdown of the underlying problem, “the broader pattern.” Namely, “climate change, burning fossil fuels, means that we’re going to see more of these very expensive extreme weather events.... We’re already seeing those.”
The participants moved on to discuss adaptation to this new reality—for example, what luxury fashion houses are doing to ensure their supply chains can function “whether the weather is going crazy or it’s a normal weather pattern,” according to Jarvis. (Efforts to halt or slow climate change by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions were never mentioned.)
Cullen was even asked for her business and government prescriptions. Yet when she returned to her own wheelhouse to explain how real-world risks are amplified by climate change, Stephanopoulos turned to Governor McCrory: “Do you accept that argument?” He added, “You’ve said that you believe that this whole issue of climate change is in God’s hands.”
CBS’s Face the Nation also led with climate. In two one-on-one interviews, host Bob Schieffer used appropriate sourcing, drawing on McCrory (again) to discuss the human and economic effects of the prior week’s snowstorms on hard-hit North Carolina, and meteorology expert Marshall Shepherd to explain the science behind these weather patterns.
Schieffer asked McCrory about his “God’s hands” quote, an opening for the governor to again frame climate change as a left/right issue and make the confusing and unchallenged claim that “the debate is really how much of it is man-made.”
Fortunately, Shepherd set the record straight on climate change and cold weather: “As I always say, weather is your mood, climate is your personality, so you have to look beyond what’s happening right outside your window.” And when Schieffer asked him what should be done, he rightly noted: “Those that make policy will decide on how to deal with these issues. As a scientist, you know, we try to report the peer-reviewed literature.”
The concurrent segments were no coincidence. In January, Congress’s climate hawks decided to address the chronic omission of global warming from our screens. Nine members of the newly formed Climate Action Task Force, spearheaded by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I.-Vt.) and Barbara Boxer (D.-Calif.), sent a letter (1/16/14) to the networks demanding more coverage on both the evening news and Sunday shows. The Task Force’s initiative was an early salvo in its stated efforts to “wake up Congress” to pass strong new federal climate legislation, among other goals.
The letter charged:
Despite [scientific] warnings, there has been shockingly little discussion on the Sunday morning news shows…. This is disturbing not only because the millions of viewers who watch these shows deserve to hear that discussion, but because the Sunday shows often have an impact on news coverage in other media throughout the week.
The letter requested that the networks “take action in the near term to correct this oversight.”
The correspondence resulted in a sit-down meeting between Sanders, Sen. Brian Schatz (D.-Hawaii), and the head of CBS, David Rhodes, according to Sanders’ communications director, Michael Briggs. Although Briggs told Extra! that the Task Force had not yet received a direct response from NBC and ABC, it seems clear the complaint made an impact.
The debate format and type of guests were in line with the Sunday shows’ “brand”—tussles over politics and the meaning of current events. To be sure, there is much to debate regarding climate change—in terms of solutions. But to have that debate in a meaningful way, it makes sense to interview people about their area of expertise: scientists about science and politicians about policy.
Then there is the conscious or unconscious catering to corporate advertisers. For example, Meet the Press’s sponsors include the American Petroleum Institute and energy-services company GE (Ad Age, 5/13/13). Those organizations benefit from uncertainty about climate change’s causes. This point was not lost on Sanders et al., whose letter noted:
We are more than aware that major fossil fuel companies spend significant amount of money advertising on your networks. We hope this is not influencing your decision about the subjects discussed or the guests who appear on your network programming.
Still, the senator was gratified by the coverage, his spokesperson told Extra!. (A blurb on Sanders’ website—2/16/14—was wryly headlined “Network News Notices Climate Change.”)
The next question: Were these shows one-off snow jobs, or the beginning of regular discussion of climate science and policy? Stay tuned.
Miranda C. Spencer is a long-time Extra! contributor who often writes about environmental issues. She blogs about oil and gas fracking at ShaleReporter.com.