As Drought Grips California, Networks Come Up Dry on Climate Science

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As Drought Grips California, Networks Come Up Dry on Climate Science

Networks were willing to acknowledge California’s drought was unprecedented–but reluctant to talk about what’s changing California’s weather. (CBS Evening News, 3/17/15)

California is in its fourth year of an unprecedented drought, with no end in sight and water reserves dwindling. It’s exactly the type of scenario climate scientists have warned about, and new research sees global warming’s fingerprints on the drought. But a new FAIR study shows that, rather than investigating this connection, network news is largely ignoring it.

FAIR examined ABC, CBS and NBC transcripts from March 1 through April 7, looking at all segments that mentioned California’s drought. It was mentioned a total of 55 times, a substantial amount of coverage, yet just a fraction of the frenzied attention that the Northeast’s extreme winter weather received. (A recent FAIR study found 417 network stories on cold and snow from January 25 until March 4, 2015–just one day longer than the current study period.)

Within the drought segments, global warming was rarely covered, with just three mentions on ABC, two on NBC and one on CBS. Overall, 89 percent of stories on the California drought made no reference to climate change. Even when it was mentioned, the networks often preferred to portray climate science as in dispute.

California’s Record Heat, Drought

California is coming off its hottest year on record, is still in the midst of a drought that’s the deepest on record, and is coming out of winter with a snowpack water reserve that’s by far the smallest on record. Media coverage tends to ask whether global warming caused these extremes, but climate scientists say that’s the wrong question. Instead, they focus on whether global warming is increasing the odds for extremes.

Historically, temperatures and precipitation have fluctuated randomly. But as Climate Central reports, now global warming is changing the odds, making it more likely a dry year will also be a warm year, making extreme drought more likely. “It used to be flipping two coins independently and getting two tails one-quarter of time. Now we’re getting tails on the temperature coin much more often,” says Stanford University’s Noah Diffenbaugh. By 2030—or by the time a child born today is in high school—climate scientists expect every single year to be warmer than normal by historic standards.

Hosts fully grasp that the drought is unprecedented and are willing to use language to communicate that. “They’re saying it’s between 500 and a thousand years since they’ve had a drought like this,” said Al Roker on the April 2 edition of NBC’s  Today show. On the April 7 edition of the CBS Evening News, Scott Pelley called the drought “historic,” “exceptional” and “extreme.” But the words “climate change” are too often off limits.

Climate/Drought Link Called ‘Controversial’

A new study released by Diffenbaugh’s team at Stanford on March 2 gave networks all the fodder they needed to explore the question of whether climate change is worsening California’s drought. “California has experienced more frequent drought years in the last two decades than it has in the past several centuries,” researchers reported. “That observed uptick is primarily the result of rising temperatures in the region, which have climbed to record highs as a result of climate change.”

But network news only mentioned the study twice, and both times it was questioned on flimsy grounds. “A new study from Stanford University claims the drought in California is being fueled by human-caused climate change,” reported Amy Robach on ABC’s Good Morning America (3/3/15). “But some scientists not involved in the study are questioning some of those findings.” What scientists? Are their concerns valid? The 48-word story left viewers thirsty for answers.

Meanwhile, CBS turned to a theoretical physicist to analyze the study, who launched attacks that weren’t grounded in reality. Contributor Michio Kaku first conflated meteorology and climatology, then painted the team of Stanford researchers as one loud-mouthed wacko. “Most meteorologists would say it’s a natural cycle. It comes and goes over a period of years, maybe decades. But last month in Stanford University, some renegade meteorologist said, no, it’s global warming,” said Kaku on CBS This Morning (4/2/15). “The combination of hot air and dry air is very unusual, and they were saying its manmade activity that’s driving this. This is controversial.”

Kaku is right that there’s disagreement, but like many scientists, his emphasis on uncertainty leaves the average television viewer with the sense that there’s much more disagreement than really exists. “Controversial” in this case doesn’t mean the two sides totally disagree—in fact, there’s widespread agreement that global warming is happening, it’s caused by carbon pollution, and it’s already changing our weather patterns. The controversy here is that one side thinks there’s enough evidence to connect the dots right now, while the other side wants to wait for more evidence. That may have been clearer if CBS had interviewed a climate scientist.

Leaning on Gov. Brown to Deliver Science

ABC mentioned the California drought 19 times, and topped the list with three mentions of climate change. It gave one of the more clear connections on ABC World News Sunday (4/5/15): “Tonight, a strong warning from California Governor Jerry Brown, the Golden State’s problem may soon be yours,” reported anchor Kendis Gibson, leading into this soundbite from Gov. Jerry Brown: “I can tell you from California, climate change is not a hoax, we’re dealing with it, and it’s damn serious.”

On NBC’s Meet the Press (3/22/15), Chuck Todd also turned to Gov. Brown to explain the drought’s climate connection:

TODD: Well, speaking of Mother Nature, this drought issue–directly attributable to climate change, in your opinion?

BROWN: Look, as they say, the scientists know more about it. I will tell you this, their—our research results that now say there’s a connection to the current drought and the extreme weather in the east and other parts of the world. The UN has already said there’s going to be 40 percent of the world will suffer from water shortage.

Again, hearing directly from a climate scientist might’ve cleared the air for viewers.

Ignoring a Compelling Story

Climate scientists have been warning for decades that global warming would lead to more intense heat waves, deeper droughts, and reduced snowpack. Now that those predictions are becoming reality before our eyes in California, reporters still aren’t even asking climate questions, never mind directly connecting the dots.

What’s most befuddling is that, unlike some other climate impacts, the story of the California drought is easily told and understood. We’re not talking about the complicated relationship between climate change, reduced Arctic sea ice, the wobbling polar vortex and the extreme winter weather in the Northeast, another phenomenon reporters didn’t connect to climate change. Connecting heat, drought and lack of snowpack to global warming isn’t hard. Even dropping in a simple “scientists say these trends are exactly what we can expect more of in a warming world” would better inform viewers.

Finally, ignoring climate change makes for boring television. There are only so many ways to say the drought is still happening, but climate impacts are a fresh angle that can be told in compelling ways–in large part because pointing out the human role in creating this drought implies that humans can play a role in preventing future ones.

Miles Grant

Miles Grant is a progressive blogger and environmental communicator in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. He’s director of communications for the National Wildlife Federation (though his thoughts here are his own). Read more at The Green Miles and follow him on Twitter.

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