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Calling It a Crisis and Covering It Like One

U.S. Network News Is Using Stronger Language to Communicate the Urgency of Climate Change

Good evening from Washington D.C. I’m Chris Hayes. Today, the crisis of climate change became the biggest story on the face of the planet.

All in With Chris Hayes, MSNBC

September 20, 2019

The language the media uses to communicate the threat of our increasingly warming planet has shifted dramatically in the past five months. From May to September, 29% of television news segments (404 of 1,375) across the six major networks – ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News Network, NBC and MSNBC – mentioning climate or global warming referred to it as a crisis or emergency.  

This represents an increase of more than 700% from all of 2018, when “crisis” or “emergency” were used to describe our overheating climate in only 50 of 1,429 segments – or 3.5% of the time. 

The use of “crisis” or “emergency” rose steadily from May to September. Beginning in May, the terms were used in 13% of segments on climate. By September, the number rose to 57%.

During that month, two networks referred to climate as a crisis or emergency in more than 80% of segments covering the issue. CNN used “crisis” or “emergency” in 89% of segments and NBC in 83% of segments.

The convergence – and escalation – of several events have likely contributed to the shift.  The severity of the crisis and our limited time to act must ensure that the language and coverage remains elevated.

Immediately it would be about taking back a place of leadership on the issue of climate change, that I actually call the climate crisis.

Interview with Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), MSNBC

June 22, 2019

Movement Leaders, Experts and Politicians Have Begun to Adopt a New Lexicon for Our Warming World

The use of “crisis” and “emergency” in the media is influenced by those who are communicating the issue to the public and leading the calls for urgent action. Climate leaders, experts and politicians, especially Democratic presidential candidates are normalizing the use of stronger and more accurate language.They have dropped the use of climate change in favor of terms like crisis, breakdown, emergency and existential threat — 

In a viral tweet from May 4, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg urged people to stop saying “climate change” and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency.

Calling it a crisis indicates that the stakes are high and that the issue is urgent. Most of all it signals to viewers that the time to act on climate is now.

Call it a Crisis Report, Public Citizen 

April 30, 2019

 Targeted Campaigns Are Challenging the Use of “Climate Change”

Activists are calling on the U.S. media to cover climate with a greater sense of urgency and consistency. On April 30, Public Citizen released a report concluding that the major television news networks were failing to convey the urgency and severity of climate change because they were referring to it as a crisis or emergency in only 3.5% of segments. These findings served as the underpinning for the “Call It a Climate Crisis”campaign, which included an activists’ petition and June 6 letter from key climate leaders to network heads demanding that they “call climate change a crisis and cover it like one.”

On June 23, 70 people organized by Extinction Rebellion were arrested outside The New York Times building while protesting for more effective media coverage of the climate crisis. A few protesters climbed onto the building to hang a banner that called for the use of the phrase “climate emergency” instead of “climate change.” 

The action was part of ongoing efforts by Extinction Rebellion to pressure governments to declare a climate emergency.

Candidates across the spectrum of the competitors in the primary are competing with various plans to tackle the climate emergency, all of which are in the context of recent history really rather ambitious.

All in With Chris Hayes, MSNBC

June 7, 2019

Climate Debate

The climate movement led by Sunrise have made aggressive climate action a litmus for Democratic presidential candidates.  And for the first time in history, a primary candidate – Governor Jay Inslee – ran on a climate platform. In response, presidential hopefuls are putting forward ambitious plans to address the climate crisis and networks are making space for candidates to debate an issue that has rarely been raised in primary or general election debates. 

On September 5, CNN hosted an unprecedented seven-hour primetime townhall focused on the climate crisis.  Later in the month, MSNBC hosted a two day event, September 19-20, with 12 candidates participating in a climate forum.  The rise of climate as a central issue in the Democratic primaries and the embrace of strong language to characterize the issue has boosted climate and it’s pairing with “crisis” and “emergency” in the media. 

We want to ensure that we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on this very important issue. The phrase ‘climate change’, for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.

Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief, The Guardian

May 17, 2019

Peer Pressure

On May 17, The Guardian announced an update to its style guide to introduce more accurate terminology for the existential threat from climate disruption. The guide encourages journalists to use climate emergency, crisis or breakdown instead of climate change, which the news outlet believes does not accurately convey the seriousness and urgency of the situation.

The change by the Guardian reverberated across news media, with journalists at several UK and U.S. media outlets reporting internal conversations about the language used around climate.

On June 6, Telemundo announced that it would update its terminology to refer to climate change as a “climate emergency.” 

And it shows that the past five years are on track to be the warmest of any five years on record, sea ice melting rapidly, sea levels rising, oceans are becoming more acidic, greenhouse gases and the atmosphere have reached all time highs. The U.N. Secretary General is calling the climate emergency the, quote, defining challenge of our time and is asking world leaders to bring concrete solutions to the summit.

CNN News Room

September 23, 2019

Dire Reports and Extreme Weather Events

Over the past several months, scientists have continued to deliver unambiguous warnings about the consequences of burning fossil fuels including, a bleak analysis about the unprecedented changes occurring in our oceans, an alarming report about the massive decline in bird populations and warnings from the IPCC about the role of food production and land management in rising carbon emissions.

These warnings have been punctuated by another summer of dangerous climate-fueled extreme weather events: record shattering temperatures, deadly storms, massive flash flooding in Texas and flash droughts across the South. The 2019 extreme weather events are not exceptional compared to the past few years. Nor are the warnings the world’s leading climate scientists new.  But they certainly support and inform the recent shift in terminology describing our alarmingly warming world.

Covering It Like One?

In a new podcast, Climate 2020, hosted by David Gelber of The Planet Project and Jeff Nesbit of ClimateNexus, Gelber remarked that climate coverage has gone from drought to flood.  

It is an accurate observation.

The major television news networks, collectively mentioned climate change or global warming during 1,429 segments in 2018. Between May and September of this year, the issue was mentioned during 1,375 segments, nearly as much in five months as in all of 2018. In part, the rise in coverage is attributable to a number of newsworthy events, including the UN Climate Summit, Climate Strike and related demonstrations that occurred in September. However, even excluding coverage in September, 2019 climate coverage is still far outpacing the previous year. 

The past five months also included climate news generated from the major networks, including two marathon climate town halls by CNN and MSNBC, a week-long “Climate in Crisis” series produced by NBC and the participation of CBS in the week-long climate coverage collaboration organized by the Covering Climate Now project.

Hopefully, the boost in coverage is more than a short-term response by television news networks and signals a turning point in the way the media defines and covers the story of our time. 


In an August 26, Washington Post article, writer Dan Zak, wrote: “The climate problem is not just scientific. It’s linguistic. If we can agree how to talk and write about an issue that affects us all, maybe we can understand and fix it together.”  

Said another way: words matter. And there seems to be agreement emerging among television news networks that “crisis” and “emergency” accurately characterize the destabilization of our climate. 

The public is there too. As part of its week long climate coverage, CBS released a poll showing that 76% of Americans see climate change as a crisis or serious problem.

Other Key Findings

  • CNN had the most mentions of “emergency” or “crisis” in absolute terms (261) when  discussing climate. It also had the highest rate of mentions (45%).
  • The other two major cable news networks, MSNBC and Fox News Network, had 70 (32%) and 40 (19%) mentions, respectively. However all of Fox’s mentions were intended to mock the idea that climate change is a crisis or emergency.
  • NBC led the broadcast networks with 21 (22%) mentions followed by CBS with nine (7%) and ABC with three (4%).
  • The use of “crisis” or “emergency” rose steadily from May to September. Beginning in May, the terms were used in 13% of segments on climate.  By September the number rose to 57%.
  • In September, two networks referred to climate as a crisis or emergency in more than 80% of segments covering the issue: CNN used crisis or emergency in 89% of segments and NBC in 83% of segments. 


For this analysis, we used Nexis to search television transcripts from six national television news networks (ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, MSNBC and NBC) for the word “crisis” or “emergency” within 75 words of “climate change” or “global warming,” from May 1, 2019, to September 31, 2019. We used the “Group Duplicates” feature, set on “High Similarity.” 

We considered programming from only the morning new block, 4 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. to midnight blocks, and we examined all results to discard false positives.