Image by Flickr user Asian Development Bank via Flickr Creative Commons

Climate Science Shortchanged in TV Coverage of California Drought

By George B. Kauffman 

California, in its fourth year of an unprecedented drought, with no end in sight and water reserves dwindling, is exactly the type of scenario that climate scientists have warned about. Although new research links the drought to global warming, a new study by FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), the national progressive media watchdog group, shows that, instead of investigating this connection, network news largely ignores it.

FAIR examined ABC, CBS and NBC transcripts from March 1 through April 7 that mentioned California’s drought a total of 55 times, a substantial amount of coverage, but only a fraction of the frenzied attention that the Northeast’s extreme winter weather received. In the drought segments, global warming was rarely covered, with only three mentions on ABC, two on NBC and one on CBS. Overall, 89% of stories on the drought made no reference to climate change. Even when it was mentioned, the networks preferred to portray climate science as in dispute. They were willing to acknowledge the drought was unprecedented but reluctant to talk about what’s changing California’s weather.

California is coming off its hottest year on record, is still amid 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, global warming is now 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,” said 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.

TV hosts 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 NBC’s Today show. On CBS Evening News, Scott Pelley called the drought “historic,” “exceptional” and “extreme,” but the words “climate change” are too often off limits. ABC World News Tonight illustrated California’s vanishing snowpack, but the long-term trends behind the extreme weather were seldom made visible.

Diffenbaugh’s study of March 2 gave networks everything 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,” he 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. On ABC’s Good Morning America, Amy Robach reported that “a new study from Stanford University claims the drought in California is being fueled by human-caused climate change. 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 This Morning asked theoretical physicist Michio Kaku to analyze the study. He launched attacks that weren’t grounded in reality, conflated meteorology and climatology, and then painted the team of Stanford researchers as one loud-mouthed wacko. “Most meteorologists would say its 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. 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 correct that there’s disagreement, but like many scientists, his emphasis on uncertainty leaves the average TV viewer with the belief 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 now, whereas the other side wants to wait for more evidence, a situation that would have been clearer if CBS had interviewed a climate scientist.

ABC mentioned the California drought 19 times and topped the list with three mentions of climate change. On one of the more clear connections on ABC World News Sunday, anchor Kendis Gibson stated, “Tonight, a strong warning from California Governor Jerry Brown, the Golden State’s problem may soon be yours,” leading into this soundbite from Gov. 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, Chuck Todd also asked 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% of the world will suffer from water shortage.

Hearing directly from a climate scientist might have cleared the air for viewers. Most network coverage of the California drought was long on imagery but short on analysis. For decades, climate scientists have been warning 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, let alone directly connecting the dots.

What’s most confusing 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 difficult. 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.

(Author’s note: My piece is based on Miles Grant’s excellent, insightful FAIR article (http://fair.org/home/as-drought-grips-california-networks-come-up-dry-on-climate-science).) 

*****

George B. Kauffman, Ph.D., chemistry professor emeritus at Fresno State and a Guggenheim Fellow, is a recipient of the American Chemical Society’s George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, the Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach and the Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution, and numerous domestic and international honors. In 2002 and 2011, he was appointed a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society, respectively.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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