You may have heard that major wildfires broke out in Southern California. The state is in a deep drought, its fire season is starting earlier than normal and the fires that have burned so far have been incredibly intense.
That might lead one to wonder if climate change plays any role at all–or, to put the question a different way, whether this extreme weather is happening on the planet Earth.
TV news, as we pointed out recently in a FAIR study (Extra!, 12/13), is intensely interested in extreme weather. But coverage that links weather events to climate is extremely rare. And with the latest reporting out of California, that pattern hasn't changed much.
Using the Nexis news database, I counted 35 reports about the California wildfires on the main morning and evening newscasts on the broadcast networks (ABC, CBS and NBC). But only one of the shows even mentioned climate change–and only because California Gov. Jerry Brown brought it up in an interview on a different TV show. Here's that brief mention, from NBC Nightly News (5/18/14):
JOE FRYER: Today Governor Jerry Brown blamed climate change.
GOVERNOR BROWN: We get heat and we get fires and we get what we're seeing.
It's not as if reporters weren't portraying the events as extreme. As CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley (5/14/14) put it: "A drought, a heat wave and strong winds are the elements for the disaster unfolding tonight in Southern California." On May 14, ABC World News correspondent Cecelia Vega declared: "The skies here, apocalyptic." On NBC Nightly News (5/15/14), anchor Brian Williams told viewers that "it looks like a bombing campaign underway over parts of Southern California."
And they gave viewers a sense of just how unusual this was. CBS Evening News (5/15/14) reported that "California has fought 1,400 wildfires so far this year. That is double what they would normally expect." On ABC's Good Morning America (5/20/14), Bazi Kanani reported: "Two-thirds of California in extreme drought after another winter and spring with almost no rain." On CBS Evening News (5/18/14): "100 percent of California is now officially listed as being in a state of drought."
But for whatever reason, the profound changes to the climate where this extreme weather is happening goes unmentioned.
This is especially ironic because just days before the fires became national news, the same broadcasts were devoting serious time to a major scientific assessment of climate change. On May 6, the White House release of the National Climate Assessment report led ABC World News, with anchor Diane Sawyer declaring:
The president and 300 experts giving their answer to a question a lot of us have been asking. Is this extreme weather all around us global warming or not? The president's answer is yes. And it's underway right here, right now.
The coverage on NBC Nightly News was similarly definitive. Here's how anchor Brian Williams (5/6/14) put it:
A new White House report on climate change is out tonight. And it's not about if or when, but the point of this report is to show it's happening here and now in this country.
So climate change is with us, and we're seeing its effects right now. This is a report, mind you, whose section on the Southwestern region that includes California leads off, "Increased heat, drought and insect outbreaks, all linked to climate change, have increased wildfires." But when those same wildfires are one of the biggest stories of the month–then, apparently, climate change shouldn't be brought up.