CLIMATE WATCH - Gas prices hit an all-time high in June, with the national average surpassing $5 per gallon.
A shortage of Russian oil due to sanctions imposed by the European Union, United States and others is largely to blame, and in response President Biden has urged US oil companies and other producers—like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—to increase their production to fill the gap.
It's a move completely inimical to Biden's stated commitment to tackling the climate emergency and shifting to renewable energy, made all the more striking as temperatures surpass records in India, Pakistan, Europe, and the Southwest and Central US. Yet the obvious climate angle of the gas price story was rendered virtually invisible by corporate media.
A FAIR study of nightly news shows found a dearth of segments connecting the record gas prices to any climate or alternative energy conversation.
This silence perpetuates inaction that poses climate solutions as lofty, unattainable pipe dreams, and suggests the only mitigation for fuel shortages is relentlessly drilling more of this harmful and nonrenewable resource.
'Climate change on the back burner'
FAIR looked at all transcripts of ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBCNightly News, CNN's Situation Room, Fox Special Report, MSNBC's The Beat, PBS NewsHour and NPR's All Things Considered in the month of June, identifying 93 episodes that discussed gas prices. Only 18 of these mentioned climate, environmental regulations or green energy even in passing. And only one of those mentions—an episode of All Things Considered (6/24/22)—made a pro-climate argument.
Thirteen mentions, meanwhile, were on Fox Special Report, all arguing against a rapid transition to renewable energy, and often painting not only average Americans, but also fossil fuel companies, as victims of Biden's fossil fuel restrictions.
Two others were simply passing mentions: CNN's Situation Room (6/7/22) made a reference to biodiesel, and NBC Nightly News (6/9/22) briefly noted Biden's environmental regulations' role in the fuel shortage. Neither offered further analysis of climate considerations.
NPR's All Things Considered aired two episodes that linked climate issues to gas prices more fully. The first (6/24/22) acknowledged weaponized natural gas resources amid Russia's war in Ukraine have"put the fight against climate change on the back burner." Sudha David-Wilp of the German Marshall Fund Berlin office asserted the importance of the late June G-7 summit in not letting climate issues slip.
This episode of All Things Considered was the only segment in FAIR's study that not only acknowledged the current economic and geopolitical landscape pushing climate to the periphery, but also advocated for climate solutions rather than more drilling.
The other NPR episode (6/28/22), by contrast, positively framed the possibility of pushing more liquified natural gas projects in Africa as a positive response to the Russian war oil shortage. Reporter Julia Simon mentioned that last year's UN climate conference decision to stop funding international fossil fuel projects by the end of the year was in direct opposition to the hope for new projects in Africa.
"Africa has historically contributed a small part of the emissions heating the planet," Simon reported. "[Anderson] says these countries deserve the chance to profit off their huge gas reserves and use those revenues to develop their economies."
Simon interviewed no sources who discussed the possibility of an equitable transition to green energy in the Global South. In the same episode, the show reported on Germany's efforts to offset living costs and gas demand by offering discounted public transportation—without discussing the potential environmental benefits of this move.
'Pointing the finger at oil companies'
All of Fox's mentions were either sympathetic to fossil fuel companies or directly critical of a swift green energy transition.
On Fox Special Report (6/17/22), host Shannon Bream mentioned Biden "pointing the finger at oil companies and refiners":
What I'm hearing from the oil companies is, "Hey, don't point the finger at us. You have been telling us you were going to kill the fossil fuel industry, and yet you are asking us to go out there and spend money to ramp up."
Notably, in that same episode, the Washington Examiner's Byron York called out the hypocrisy of Biden calling for more drilling while also pushing a so-called climate agenda:
On the one hand, he did a big environmental climate change event today talking about that. And then he is begging Saudi Arabia to please pump more oil.
York was the only source who made this point.
In a June 6 episode of Fox Special Report (6/6/22), Sen. Tom Cotton (R.–Arkansas) said high gas prices were the "intended consequence" of Democrats' "Green New Deal fantasies," effectively suggesting that moves to halt a climate catastrophe are specifically designed to hurt average citizens.
On a June 22 episode of the show, host Brett Baier spoke with former Education Secretary Bill Bennett, who called green energy "a very long-term goal":
Baier: Bill, on the flipside, it is politically a powerful movement to say that these big oil companies are making a profit on your back, and why can't they give you a break. And it's easy because it's complicated to explain the process by which the oil is taken up and how the companies have to deal with the restrictions put on, environmentally and otherwise, by the administration.
Bennett: Yes. Well, but most people who drive were driving four years ago or three years ago. And they saw what the price of oil was then. And we had the same companies. What changed? Well, we had a different president. This is policy aimed for the elites, by the elites, that punishes the American people. And this long-term goal of green energy is a very long-term goal. It takes a long time to get there.
Despite Bennett's glib "well, we had a different president," what mainly changed the cost of gasoline is that global oil prices doubled from December 2021 to June 2022 in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. But more important than Fox's cheap partisan point is the that fact that switching to green energy as soon as possible is an existential imperative—nota "very long-term goal," as Bennett claimed.
'A brief and rapidly closing window'
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report in February that was as alarming as it was clear:
Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all.
A FAIR study (4/21/22) found that nightly news shows covered that report the day of its release, but almost entirely failed to talk about it in the following six weeks.
June's gas price spike represented another missed opportunity to continue the climate conversation, as the majority of nightly news shows reported on how high prices had prompted calls to increase supply, with no mention of either the possibility of reducing demand or where green energy might fit into the conversation. Shows that mentioned Biden's pleas to drill for more oil (e.g., All Things Considered, 6/22/22; ABC World News Tonight, 6/2/22) or calls for a gas tax holiday (e.g., NBC Nightly News, 6/22/22; CNN'sSituation Room, 6/20/22) never included any points of view from environmentalists or Indigenous activists.
Five nightly episodes (Fox Special Report, 6/1/22; NBC Nightly News, 6/1/22, 6/7/22, 6/13/22; All Things Considered, 6/13/22) discussed using alternative forms of transportation—like bicycles, public transportation or electric cars—to avoid paying for gas. CBS Evening News (6/7/22) outlined some tips on how to increase your car's gas mileage. Despite mentioning the financial benefits of alternative transportation, none of these shows discussed the environmental benefits.
The same episode of CBS Evening News even transitioned from talking about rising gas prices into reporting on rising temperatures, in a segue you have to read to believe:
And while gas prices are rising, so are the temperatures. It was triple-digit record heat today in Austin and San Antonio. And more than 100 cities are expected to break their record highs over the next week from California to Texas.
To the north, severe storms with baseball-sized hail and 80-mile-per-hour wind gusts are taking aim at more than 50 million people in the Plains.
The climate change connection between burning fossil fuels and suffering extreme weather was entirely missed.
'Recipe for inaction'
Other nightly shows discussed gas prices in one segment of an episode and the climate in another, but never connected the two.
On NBC Nightly News (6/10/22), for instance, one segment mentioned the record high gas prices. Later in the episode, the show featured a package about the "brutal heat dome" spreading across the Western US, saying that "upwards of 50 daily high temperature records could be shattered through the weekend." It mentioning failing power grids, but ignored the imperative need to reduce global use of fossil fuels.
An episode of NPR's All Things Considered (6/10/22) summarized both the rising food and oil prices—and the historic drought—Kenyans are facing, without linking the climate and economic issues together. Later in the month (6/30/22), the show talked about a deadly heatwave in Japan amid an energy shortage—without mentioning climate change.
On the day the Supreme Court handed down its West Virginia v. EPA decision that stripped the federal government of its ability to mandate carbon emission reductions, many shows (including Fox Special Report, 6/30/22; Situation Room, 6/30/22; Nightly News, 6/30/22, PBS NewsHour, 6/30/22, World News Tonight, 6/10/22) covered both the decision and gas prices—once again, entirely separately.
NBC Nightly News (6/30/22) opened a show by discussing soaring gas prices, and then moved on to discuss the EPA decision. Correspondent Pete Williams reported that the ruling,
could have broader implications, because it said only Congress, not federal agencies, can set the rules on what it called "major questions." Some legal experts say that's a recipe for inaction.
Also a recipe of inaction: Only mentioning climate change when it is a key buzzword in a story, but not when it's linked to the responsibility of fossil fuel companies or the economy at large.
NBC, MSNBC, CNN, ABC, NPR, CBS, PBS and even Fox have entire sections of their websites dedicated to climate and environmental stories. PBS NewsHour even dedicated a 90-minute special to overfishing and warming oceans. But when it comes to applying an environmental lens to stories that affect our wallets—and potentially their board members (MichaelWestMedia, 1/15/20) and advertising money (EcoWatch, 4/26/16; Guardian, 12/4/21)—they fall short.
The scientific consensus is clear: To stave off the worst effects of climate change, we need to take decisive and immediate action. If news outlets continue to only discuss climate in specific, isolated contexts, the opportunity for the holistic changes we need to make will pass us by.
(Olivia Riggio is a journalist and Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) author who became FAIR's administrative and fundraising director in April 2021. This story was featured in Common Dreams.)