We humans are warming our climate — mostly by burning up fossil fuels. And we’re seeing a range of serious impacts in our own backyards and across the globe, including the increased frequency and magnitude of some types of extreme weather.
Americans seem to get it. Polling from 2011 shows that a majority of us now link an unnaturally warming climate to droughts, floods, and other extremes. But, according to opinion research by George Mason University, only 19 percent of television weather forecasters [PDF] acknowledge the established science of climate change. An earlier study found that 27 percent of TV meteorologists call global warming a “scam,” while over half denied that humans are the cause.
It’s a cryin’ shame, too, because as trusted local “personalities,” weathercasters are in a unique position to help interpret climate science and impacts through the lens of local weather.
If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that some weathercasters are coming around on their own — and there are several campaigns to help the others catch up.
As Inside Climate News’ Katherine Bagley points out, broadcast forecasters make up only a small fraction of meteorologists — maybe 10 percent. Most U.S. meteorologists are researchers — for NASA and NOAA and the like. So, they may be few, but weathercasters are mighty. Unlike their lab-bound counterparts, they enjoy the limelight that comes with being local TV celebrities. And polling shows us that what weathercasters say about climate matters:
- “The public cares about what their weathercaster thinks of climate change,” says Ed Maibach, director of the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.
- In 2010, Yale and George Mason found that 56 percent of Americans trusted weathercasters to tell them about global warming far more than they trusted other news media or public figures.
- More than three-quarters of TV meteorologists say they have discussed the topic of global warming either on or off air.
Notably, Bagley reminds us that for many Americans, their TV weatherperson is the only climate-related authority they encounter on a regular basis — or ever!
Reasons weathercasters lag behind
Bagley identifies three likely reasons weathercasters are slow to acknowledge climate science:
- They don’t trust the climate models. Polls show that about 75 percent of weathercasters distrust models of climate change. The climate models used for short-term weather forecasting and long-term projections about the broader climate are similar, but the short-term models are usually only accurate in predicting five- or seven-day forecasts — if that. Weather forecasters may think the long-term models are just as fallible.
- Weathercasters aren’t required to learn about climate science. About half of meteorologists have bachelor’s degrees in meteorology. The other half are mainly journalists assigned to the weather beat. But there are virtually no undergraduate meteorology programs in the country that have a significant climate science component. And both the big certification programs (American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association) fail to require climate-related course work or to test for climate knowledge in the written exam or reviews of on-air work and forecasting.
- Personal politics and beliefs cloud evaluation of the science. As Maibach cautions, whether, how, or if a weathercaster chooses to discuss climate change may come down to their personal politics and beliefs.
Of course weathercasters don’t have the final say when it comes to reporting beyond the forecast. As I’ve written before, it’s news directors (as well as station or network owners) who are the ultimate “gatekeepers,” often making content decisions based on ratings, advertising sales, and other commercial factors that might prevent full coverage of “controversial” issues like climate.
A weathercaster renaissance?
So, how do we get the weather personalities on our local news stations up to speed on climate?
There are some obvious fixes that could happen pretty fast.
As for the differences between short-term and long-term modeling, Bagley finds Keith Seitter, director of the American Meteorological Society, quite optimistic that there’s an easy solution. He says that some basic training for weathercasters about the differences between weather and climate models could go a long way.
What about education? Again, possibly a pretty easy fix here. Make climate science classes mandatory in these programs and/or put climate science questions on the certification exams. Campaigns like Forecast the Facts aim to pressure both professional societies and undergraduate programs to do just that.
The National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) also has a promising program underway, providing weathercasters with tips on talking about the links between weather and the environment, including climate adaptation and mitigation information to incorporate into their broadcasts. As of several years ago, the free, weekly newsletter goes to 95 meteorologists in 63 cities, who in turn reach more than 150 million viewers.
NEEF’s weekly tip sheets (called Earth Gauge) are tailored to each city’s local three-day forecast. They include information about climate patterns as well as practical information like public transportation options to reduce emissions or suggestions to put off lawn fertilizing to prevent chemical runoff during a downpour. (Anybody can sign up for these tips, and they’re also available in Spanish.)
I haven’t seen any evidence of this on my local weather forecast, but The New York Times reported back in 2007 that The Weather Channel was at least one major broadcaster taking tips from NEEF’s Earth Gauge service to the airwaves (or cables). “If The Weather Channel isn’t talking about climate change and global warming, who is?” Kaye Zusmann, the network’s vice president for program strategy and development said at the time. “It’s our mandate.”
But that was back when climate was still fashionable. And as yet, I’d say taking this level of responsibility as weather forecasters is the exception, not the norm.
Additionally, NEEF collaborates with the Cooperative Program for Operational Meteorology, Education and Training to provide online environmental science courses for meteorologists and the public, with an eye to nudging weathercasters to include more environmental perspective and coverage. It also features profiles of meteorologists on its site, playing up the notion that they are “station scientists,” ambassadors bridging the scientific community and the general public.
The biggest, most daunting obstacle, however, has to do with personal politics.
Paul Douglas, a prominent Minnesota meteorologist and Star Tribune contributor, made a big splash when he “came out” as a Republican weathercaster who acknowledges climate science — and he says we have cause for alarm. Writing in the Huffington Post about his own “ephiphany,” he lamented the partisan politics that had previously clouded his own ability to acknowledge the science. Those dark clouds continue to prevent his many conservative friends and meteorologist colleagues from seeing the evidence that’s all around them.
There will likely be many more stories like Douglas’s as our weather gets weirder. One can only hope those who see the light are equally vocal about it. We also need more structural fixes that nudge weathercasters to a similar renaissance, in time lending climate science the friendly, local, plain-speaking, and personable power of TV personalities across the land.