To the extent that climate change reporters actually exist on TV—MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes often cover climate stories, but cable news as a whole largely fails to—the Last Week Tonight host has proven himself among the smartest. He’s mocked the absurdity of “debating” climate change by pitting 97 mainstream scientists against 3 contrarians, outlined the stakes of leaving the Paris climate agreement, and detailed Republicans’ history of science denial.
Oliver’s latest episode continued the trend. On Sunday, he delved into the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), a federal program that’s enriching private insurance companies and screwing over poor people—a pattern that will only worsen as floods get more intense due to climate change.
The segment is an earnest attempt to answer one of the most pressing policy questions of 2017, a year in which three devastating hurricanes cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars. How can we stop this from happening? One obvious solution is to stop building and living in flood zones. And yet, Oliver noted, “We have made certain decisions that put and keep people and property in the path of flooding.” Despite more extreme flooding and more catastrophic damage due to climate change, the government keeps insuring flood-prone properties and doling out millions of dollars for people to rebuild in at-risk zones.
Oliver went further, noting that the NFIP is not only a waste of government money, but a boon for private insurance companies. That’s because the government doesn’t directly sell insurance; instead, it “pays private insurance companies a fee for every policy they sell,” Oliver said. “But not just that: The federal government is then responsible for covering any losses, which is a pretty fucking sweet deal for the insurance companies… The bigger the disaster, the more they stand to profit.” At the same time, low-income people get the brunt of this deal, because “our buy-out programs are hugely underfunded and prohibitively slow,” Oliver explained. In other words, people who would like to move out of their flood-prone houses can’t find anyone to buy them, nor can they get government support to sell them. The result is a vicious cycle of flooding and rebuilding.
This information in itself is far more than most cable news segments would provide. But what makes Oliver the most sensible climate journalist on TV is his approach to denial. He at first acts like he’s taking into account the opinions of everybody—only to show how dumb it is that we’re still engaging in this debate. “Sure, it’s a complicated issue,” Oliver said of the connection between extreme weather and climate change. “We may not have definitive proof until the late 1980s.” Later, he noted how heavy downpours and sea level rise have been increasing in the last 50 years. “I’m not saying that’s because of climate change,” he says. “Even though, IT IS. IT JUST FUCKING IS.”
Oliver has insisted he’s a comedian and not a journalist, but don’t believe him. In a cable news environment where networks largely ignore climate change’s influence on extreme weather, give outsized airtime to climate deniers, and fail to mention the climate consequences of elections, Oliver’s smart and brutally honest stories comprise some of the best climate journalism on television. He also accomplishes something that no climate reporter does: He makes us laugh, too.