Less than a month ago, the term “polar vortex” sounded more like the name of a Pixar film than a blast of Arctic air causing record-low temperatures. The flick would star a family of polar bears wearing red vests, I imagined. They’d stumble into a ring of gently falling snow. But the flurries would soon twist into a hard-driving blizzard, and when the family tried to escape, it would encounter all sorts of obstacles.
I wasn’t the only one with an overactive imagination during the recent cold snap. As the frigid air drove Americans into their thermal underwear and under their electric blankets, late-night talk-show hosts broadcast their own interpretations. Stephen Colbert pictured the polar vortex as a Nicolas Cage action film. Jay Leno envisioned the term splashed across Cosmo covers. And David Letterman free-associated the words “minus degrees” with Dr. Phil.
But Fox News had a different idea altogether. The channel interpreted the polar vortex–induced temperatures as evidence that global warming does not exist, according to an investigation of cable networks’ climate change coverage by Media Matters for America, a media watchdog.
Between Jan. 2 and Jan. 8—days described by The New York Times as “the worst of the polar vortex mess”—Fox News took to branding climate change as a dubious phenomenon. (Never mind that geologist James L. Powell found that only one of more than 9,000 authors of peer-reviewed scientific journal articles in the last year rejected man-made global warming, or that in September 2013 the climate arm of the United Nations proclaimed with 95 percent certainty that climate change is both real and man-made.) One story that Fox News did cover during this week was that of a ship that got trapped in large amounts of Antarctic ice—notable to broadcasters as an example of “global cooling.”
During those seven days, Fox News brought up global warming in the context of cold weather nine times, Media Matters found. The network’s relatively “frequent” mentions of climate change during that period stand out when compared with its failure to bring climate change into its news analysis during a weeklong heat wave in 2011. During July 2012, the warmest month on record in the U.S., Fox News mentioned climate change exactly once—and only “to deny it,” wrote Media Matters’ Denise Robbins.
Let's Be Clear: Weather Is Not Climate
Whereas weather is best thought of as atmospheric conditions over a short period of time, such as days or weeks, climate is how the atmosphere behaves over long periods, such as decades or centuries.
Yet Fox News’ on-air talent repeatedly ignored this key distinction, so much so that the White House was forced to release a set-the-record-straight video featuring Obama science adviser John Holdren. In it, Holdren tells viewers not to believe that the polar vortex, a short-term weather event and not a long-term climate trend, invalidates global warming.
“The fact is that no single weather episode can either prove or disprove global climate change,” he says. “Climate is a pattern of weather that we observe geographically and over the seasons, and it’s described in terms of averages, variations, and probabilities.”
Holden adds that a “growing body of evidence” suggests the extreme cold experienced by Americans is a pattern he expects to see more frequently as global warming continues.
What About the Other Television Networks?
Media Matters’ investigation found that while MSNBC mentioned climate change in the context of the polar vortex four times, it gave airtime to only those experts who debunked the climate skeptics’ position. CNN mentioned it in the cold weather context once and presented both sides in a debate format.
What’s worse, Sunday news show coverage of global warming on Fox News and the major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) totaled less than half an hour—27 minutes to be exact—for all of last year, according to a previous Media Matters investigation of climate coverage.
On a slightly more positive note, nightly news in 2013 was more generous. Climate change coverage on ABC, CBS, and NBC (Fox does not have an evening news program) totaled one hour and 42 minutes, the most since 2009.
Politicians Take Note—and Action
The study’s results pushed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and eight of his peers to write a letter to ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox yesterday advocating for increased climate change coverage by the networks.
“Although it is a modest improvement over the eight minutes of coverage in 2012,” their letter read, “given the widely recognized challenge that climate change poses to the nation and the world, this is an absurdly short amount of time for a subject of such importance.”