2013 was a big year for climate. Global carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere hit 400 parts per million for the first time in recorded history; global sea levels hit a record high; oil spills, coal mine landslides, and gas explosions beset the world.
But arguably the most visible and persistent climate event was the increase in ferocity of our weather. 2013 was marked by extremes in temperature and precipitation, conditions that fueled deadly wildfires, flooding, and storm surges.
Despite those facts, America’s major television news stations mostly failed to mention climate change when reporting on events like deadly flooding in Colorado, the string of major wildfires across the American West, and bouts of unseasonable temperatures across the country.
Those are the findings of a new survey released by Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), a progressive media criticism group. The results were achieved through analysis of extreme weather news reports with more than 200 words from CBS Evening News, ABC World News and NBC Nightly News for the first nine months of 2013. Extreme weather event reports analyzed included news about hurricanes, drought, wildfires, floods and heat waves.
“Our study demonstrates that when weather is the news, the climate is seldom mentioned,” the organization wrote on its website. “It’s almost as if the climate and the weather were happening on two different planets.”
Out of this year’s 450 segments about extreme weather, just 16 of those reports mentioned climate change, according to the survey. “In other words, 96 percent of extreme weather stories never discussed the human impact on the climate,” FAIR said.
Breaking it down by network, CBS Evening News was the worst culprit of ignoring climate when talking about weather. According to FAIR’s survey, only two out of 114 reports about extreme weather mentioned the terms “greenhouse gases,” “climate change” or “global warming.” One of those segments was about flooding in North Dakota, wherein the only mention came from the mayor of Fargo, who commented: “Is it climate change? I really don’t know.”
On ABC World News, just eight out of its 200 extreme weather segments — approximately four percent — attributed weather outcomes to climate factors. NBC Nightly News mentioned climate change six times in 136 reports on extreme weather.
“It’s unrealistic to expect that TV newscasts would find a way to mention climate change or a warming planet in every significant story about extreme weather,” the organization wrote. “But you’re unlikely to ever bring up global warming if you don’t think that it’s real.”
While the scientific community is still studying certain aspects of the link between climate change and extreme weather, many connections are clear. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report did not establish whether there was a pattern suggesting an increased frequency of hurricanes and tornadoes due to global warming. But the connection between climate change and the severity of droughts, floods, wildfires and heavy rainfall is obvious. The relatively conservative IPCC warns of increased heat, drought, deluges, and sea-level rise — all the direct result of man-made global warming.
And, as Climate Progress’ own Joe Romm has pointed out, it is all but certain that warming-driven sea level rise makes storm surges more destructive, and that increased water vapor in the atmosphere from increased sea surface temperatures leads to five to ten percent more rainfall and increases the risk of flooding.
As for Hurricane Sandy, there’s little doubt that global warming worsened its impact. In particular, a September study by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers found “climate-change related increases in sea level have nearly doubled today’s annual probability of a Sandy-level flood recurrence as compared to 1950.”