Climate Finally Gets TV Spotlight, But Science Experts And Advocates Are Scarce

No climate scientists appeared on Fox News, MSNBC or CNN during Thursday evening's discussion.

President Donald Trump’s decision Thursday to break with more than 190 other nations in abandoning the Paris Agreement, a move widely condemned as damaging to the environment and America’s economic future, finally pushed climate change directly onto the radar of cable news producers.

But despite the uptick in attention, those individuals most knowledgeable about environmental effects weren’t part of cable’s conversation. No climate scientists appeared on CNN, MSNBC or Fox News from shortly after 4 p.m., when Trump wrapped up his rambling Rose Garden announcement, to the end of primetime at 11 p.m. on Thursday, according to a search using monitoring service TVEyes.

None of the heads of major environmental organizations, like Sierra Club and Greenpeace, appeared during this time period either.

Public opposition to leaving the Paris accord was striking in that it included both climate activists and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. But no major executives were interviewed Thursday on the three cable news networks, even as several, including the heads of Apple, Goldman Sachs and General Electric, voiced their opposition on Twitter.

The cable networks covered the political fallout from President Trump's decision on the Paris accord, but science got short shrift.
The cable networks covered the political fallout from President Trump's decision on the Paris accord, but science got short shrift.
Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The framing of their climate change coverage on Thursday was a missed opportunity for cable news, which ― like TV news more broadly ― focused little on the urgent global issue during the 2016 election. On Thursday, Vox editor-in-chief Ezra Klein wrote that historians will “look back on the 2016 campaign in horror” when they compare the intense focus on Hillary Clinton’s emails to the lack of attention to climate change.

Television anchors didn’t ask any climate change questions during the presidential debates between Trump and Clinton. The issue also received short shrift on the evening newscasts and Sunday shows, as progressive watchdog Media Matters pointed out Thursday.

Although there has long been a scientific consensus around global warming, the president has the ability to muddy the waters, whether by continuing to push a conspiracy theory that climate change is really a hoax created by the Chinese or by promoting climate skepticism to his tens of millions of Twitter followers. Trump also knows how to use the presidential bully pulpit, as he did Thursday in publicly speaking about the Paris pullout. Appearing live on channels across the country, Trump took the opportunity to make several false or misleading claims about the deal.

Given the misinformation coming from the White House, climate experts who can separate fact from fiction are needed more than ever on TV news.

But across the top three cable news networks, the focus Thursday centered more on the political ramifications of Trump’s decision than the environmental or economic impacts, with dozens of political reporters and pundits weighing in on panels.

Of course, Trump’s decision is a big political story and the fallout merits attention. And it’s important to have anchors like CNN’s Jake Tapper challenge the claims of Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, who along with White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, reportedly advocated most strongly for leaving the accord. Paris Agreement supporters within the administration thought Bannon and Pruitt were presenting Trump with data that was “either erroneous, scientifically dubious, misleading or out of date,” according to The Washington Post.

The on-air panels Thursday often veered heavily toward sizing up the competing factions in the White House ― the “populists” versus the “globalists” ― or the political implications. Most of the guests booked to discuss the decision primarily write and comment on politics, though some ― like CNN’s Van Jones, a former “green jobs czar” in the Obama administration ― may also have experience in environmental issues.

The coverage Thursday wasn’t uniform, with MSNBC focusing as much, or more, on the ongoing Russia investigation and the news that former FBI Director James Comey would testify next week. CNN also spent considerable time on Russia, while Fox News covered that investigation less and featured more voices in support of the president’s climate move.

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes provided a good look into the economic dangers of leaving the Paris accord, noting that the future is not in fossil fuels like coal, but rather green technology. Both CNN and MSNBC interviewed mayors and governors about their plans to reach climate goals even as the White House retreats into an isolationist crouch. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto (D) ― who disputed Trump’s comment that he was elected to represent “Pittsburgh, not Paris,” a dog whistle to the president’s nationalist base ― appeared on CNN and MSNBC. California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) was interviewed on the latter.

Fox News host and self-identified climate “agnostic” Tucker Carlson interviewed Philip Levine, the Democratic mayor of Miami Beach and a supporter of the Paris accord. But the conservative host aggressively pushed back on the mayor’s views throughout the interview. “Is there a single person watching this show stupid enough to be convinced by what you’re saying?” Carlson asked at one point.

Carlson also mocked the news media and the left’s “hysterical” reaction to the decision, a familiar theme on Fox News as other commentators cited the “hysteria” and “hyperbole” coming from critics of the move. Several Fox News hosts and guests praised Trump’s decision, with “The Five” star Kimberly Guilfoyle ― who revealed that the president had called her Thursday morning ― describing it as “brave and courageous.”

One Fox News program also turned to former coal miner and Trump supporter Bo Copley, who said the president was standing up “for people like me and the West Virginians who voted for him.”

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