Brad Johnson here - I'm sitting in the lobby of Boston's Park Plaza Hotel right now, attending the American Meteorological Society 40th Annual Broadcast Meteorology Conference. Over 200 of the nation's top TV meteorologists are here to discuss their profession and how to best serve their viewers' interests. No challenge is greater than the one they face than manmade climate change. The political, social, and economic pressures on weathercasters are great, and many here are afraid to talk about the science of how the burning of fossil fuels is changing our weather. They feel isolated and overwhelmed, and are unsure if there would be a positive response from their viewership for taking the personal risk to talk about global warming on the air. Below are some stories about the meteorologists in attendance who have taken the plunge and are demonstrating that talking about global warming isn't just okay, but it's the right thing to do.
From the point of view of the planet, this may be the most important meeting of weather reporters in history. Because the burning question in Beantown is whether weathercasters will embrace their responsibility to communicate how climate change is creating a new normal of dangerous, extreme weather.
Given the climate change-fueled storms, heat waves, droughts, and wildfires that have dominated the past year, global warming will undoubtedly be a “hot” topic at this year’s conference. But, amazingly, many broadcast meteorologists remain lukewarm to the subject: The majority of weathercasters, including many with AMS certification, don’t believe that humans are causing climate change, let alone that it’s dramatically shifting our weather patterns. These meteorologists are missing the opportunity to be journalistic heroes who can inform the nation about our increasingly poisoned weather.
For those weathercasters who want education on the subject, the conference has plenty to provide, with panels like “Applying Climate Change to Google Earth,” “Climate Change and Ocean Stories,” and “Hot Topics for the Station Scientist.” But the source of the climate communication deficit is mostly not educational, it’s about politics. The ideological bent of some forecasters, and the pressures to avoid “controversial” subjects that might affect ratings, are leading some meteorologists to ignore science when airtime arrives. That’s why the staff of Forecast the Facts is attending the conference, carrying a message from thousands of our members: that reporting on global warming is a professional and moral responsibility. Below are just a few of their powerful comments:
You have a captive audience and no other single spokesperson would be better to educate people so they can effect changes in their own lives and in how we as a nation or community address and deal with correcting this problem that impacts us all. – Peggy B., Ocean Isle Beach, N.C.These Forecast the Facts members are not alone. Most Americans want their meteorologists to report on climate change. According to a March 2012 Yale/George Mason survey, two out of three Americans believe that global warming is changing our weather and want to learn more. The survey also found that 58 percent of Americans “would be interested in learning what my favorite TV weathercaster has to say about global warming.” [PDF] Even those who aren’t expressly asking for that information are clearly in need. Over the past six years, 80 percent of Americans have been affected by extreme weather. Their local meteorologists are the ones who can help them understand what’s going on, and whether they should expect more.
Surely as scientists you know the realities of climate change. We must share this scientific evidence with as many in the public as we can before it is too late. You have a unique position where you can make a real difference and educate the public to this ever dangerous reality. Please use factual evidence to educate our citizens about the difference between weather and climate and to explain the greenhouse effect so that it is easily understood. Thanks for taking on this vital task. — James L., Hardwick, Mass.
Everyone watches the weather and relies on local forecasting. I’d very much appreciate local forecasters/weather experts making the connection between climate change and current weather patterns, based on the latest data, and helping the public to distinguish between long-term variation and short-term variation. You can make a big difference in educating, motivating, and driving critical behavior change. — Henry K., Sparks, Nev.
Thankfully, some meteorologists have already heeded these calls. WLTX Chief Meteorologist Jim Gandy of Columbia, S.C., does a weekly segment called Climate Matters, which explores how global warming is affecting the planet and his own community. KMGH-TV Chief Meteorologist Mike Nelson of Denver and WBOC-TV Chief Meteorologist Dan Satterfield of Salisbury, Md., run popular blogs that contribute both breaking weather alerts and informative explanations of how humans are changing the weather. And others, like WPRI-TV meteorologist TJ Del Santo of Providence, R.I., have done stand alone segments on the climate change-fueled heat wave.
These intrepid reporters deserve our sincere appreciation; Forecast the Facts members have already been showing them love online, and we’re excited to convey our thanks in person this week. But too many meteorologists still fall far short of this ideal. If this past year has taught us anything, it’s that when meteorologists refuse to accurately report on climate change, they quite literally put their viewers at risk.
Let's talk a bit more about how weathercaster Jim Gandy has become one of the nation’s most effective climate change communicators, and how he has done so in South Carolina, one of the most conservative states in the nation.
We caught up with Gandy at the conference on Wednesday. With a black cowboy hat and light southern drawl, Gandy told us he started investigating climate science in 2005 after geology professors at a nearby university asked him, “What do you think about this climate change thing?” Gandy took the question seriously, familiarizing himself with the peer-reviewed literature, and learning about how human activities are changing the weather and climate.
In 2011, Gandy partnered with George Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication and the nonprofit Climate Central to develop a program called Climate Matters, a segment that places his weathercasts in the context of climate change. Gandy also blogs regularly about climate. Broadcasting in South Carolina, Gandy was well aware of the risks. “I’m not from a red state, I’m from a dark red state,” he told us. Like his friend and peer Dan Satterfield, a weathercaster based until recently in Huntsville, Ala., Gandy began speaking out about climate change fully prepared to face backlash from his politically conservative audience.
But a funny thing happened: The backlash never came. Rather than facing an onslaught of angry phone calls, Gandy found that many viewers were fascinated by his reports connecting climate change with their daily lives. His report on climate change’s impact on poison ivy, for instance, received praise from viewers who stopped him on the street to thank him.
Unfortunately, Gandy is an outlier among weathercasters, who are some of the America’s most trusted public messengers on climate change [PDF]. Even among weathercasters who are convinced about the science of climate change, 39 percent report [PDF] that a perceived “lack of viewer support” prevents them from including climate information in their nightly broadcasts. But if numerous public surveys [PDF] and the urging of thousands of Forecast the Facts members aren’t enough to persuade the more cautious in the profession, Gandy’s experience should be.
Later in the day, we learned from Ed Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication (4C), that the positive impact of Gandy’s reports is not just anecdotal. Maibach’s team surveyed the Columbia, S.C., media market before and after Gandy launched “Climate Matters,” asking questions about climate change to viewers of Gandy’s station, and comparing them with responses from viewers who tuned in to other stations. 4C’s hypotheses heading in to the experiment were borne out. Viewers of Gandy’s station learned more about climate change than viewers of other local newscasts. Furthermore, the more viewers watched Gandy’s program, the more informed they were about climate change and the science behind it. So, to review: More effective climate communication leads to greater public understanding, with some personal gratitude heaped on top. In Columbia, S.C.
Maibach told the audience of over 200 of the nation’s top weathercasters that they are second only to scientists in the public’s eye as trusted messengers on climate change. Unlike scientists, however, TV meteorologists are professional communicators with incredible access to the public. “You are the Bruce Springsteen of television,” Maibach said. “You are the reason many people turn on the television each day. You are the only ones who can fill the stadium.”
As we spoke to TV meteorologists throughout the day, we continued to hear from many that climate change feels untouchable, that the public won’t be receptive, that it’s too “political” or “controversial” to talk about. But the experiences of Gandy, Satterfield, and other brave “climatecasters” proves otherwise. Presenting established science to viewers and broadening the context of weather reporting isn’t just doable — it’s welcome, and sorely needed.
Please add your voice: go to ForecastTheFacts.org and tell your local meteorologists why you care about climate change and why you want them to forecast the facts.