Filmmaker and author Michael Moore has often made fun of television news broadcasts for being preoccupied with weather and sports rather than more substantial news stories. We do tend to obsess about the weather—probably far more than we think about climate or energy policy.
But studies indicate that meteorologists and weathercasters (those latter having no formal meteorology degree and credentials) are among the most trusted sources of information in the United States when it comes to global warming. And, frankly, these are folks who own a powerful local communications platform for informing the public about climate change. We listen to them.
But weathercasters mostly speak in sound-bites about the immediate forecasts. They rarely have time to look at the big picture—and they’re not asked to comment on science or policy. In any case, climate change and current weather events are two different things entirely—the most significant impacts of climate change are gradual and the precise amount of warming or change in a particular area or region is uncertain.
Still, it’s encouraging to know that weathercasters and meteorologists from around the country met in Portland recently and attended a day-long series of lectures by climatologists, broadcast meteorologists, and researchers, exploring new and emerging scientific evidence on climate change and ways to frame and integrate climate change information for their on-air and off-air audiences.
Weather anomalies often prompt questions from the public, said Anthony Broccoli, director of the Center for Environmental Prediction, Rutgers University, speaking to workshop participants. “Those questions can provide meteorologists opportunities to report on climate change and science in direct and understandable terms.”
Broccoli and others worked with participants to think through the most effective ways meteorologists can explain why science matters and what it may mean for local weather, the relationships between climate change and frequency and intensity of severe weather, and the role of policy in addressing climate change.
I say: power to the weathercasters! We trust them and they have our attention on a daily basis. Most importantly, they are really good at explaining scientific information in language everyone can understand—that’s their job. And while their role in informing the public about this issue is not crystal clear, they are in a position to act as trusted translators of climate science and policy when they have a moment to step back and think “big picture.”
Image courtesy: World Bridge Media.
My sense from a casual conversation or two is that weathercasters tend to be global warming denialists. (Indeed, the article links to a story making this point, see http://www.yaleclimatemediaforum.org/2009/07/tv-meteorologists-weathercasters-briefedby-climate-experts-at-ams-short-course/)Why? Because other things being equal, money leads people to the Right, higher education to the Left. So people with lots of education and no money tend to be the most extreme leftists in our society, and people with lots of money and not much education tend to be the most extreme rightists. And many weathercasters are not that educated, which means they are in this latter category.
A couple of thoughts:One, I think the scientists have gotten in the way of communicating about climate change. I totally understand the “scientific” approach of all data having to be collected, verified, peer reviewed, etc. But everytime I hear Phil Mote – the go to guy for a quote – say “NO – we can’t say that the current weather is due to climate change” it grates. Here is a teachable moment lost. Why not say instead – “well, it’s really hot. Hotter than normal. In fact, the last ten years are hotter than the previous 2000 years (or whatever the data is.) And in fact, this trend is consistent with our models about climate change. Of course, historically there were hot days – but the unusual weather patterns are becoming more usual. So it is consistent with climate change.” In other words, help the weather guys and gals out – give them ways to talk about climate change because they are trusted. (Everybody loves Cliff Mass the best.) Second – Anna says that the most significant climate change trends are gradual. hmmm, maybe not so much. Seen any of those ice shelves break off? In fact, the one thing the scientists have got completely wrong so far is the rate of climate change – the hot days, droughts, ice and glacier melt, floods, fires, etc are all happening much sooner and more often and intensely than forecast.
Weatherforecasters are among the most trusted sources of info in the United States? That’s the problem, right there! Who else are among those “trusted sources”—psychics, evangelical preachers, and other fellow soothsayers, I’d bet.
I love this conversation because everybody who’s chimed in has contributed something really relevant and useful.Mike: you are right that the weather folks have been climate skeptics. I’m not sure it’s about levels of education alone (Republicans with more education are the strongest skeptics of all—I blogged about polling on this a year or so ago). It may even be a reaction (backlash) to the cautious communications of scientists (Saratoga mentions this). Weather reporters have been conditioned NOT to make connections between localized events and the big picture. It’s interesting to hear that some of the speakers at this workshop were “converted”–weather reporters who just couldn’t stand by and ignore the changes that are underway.Saratoga: Totally right on. I agree that teaching moments are missed again and again by scientists. It happened constantly as Seattle experienced the hottest day on record—ever. That’s why I get excited when the weather reporters get together to talk about how to make these connections. I don’t imagine any big revolutions over night, but it’s a first step.Niall: It’s hard to believe since I myself avoid all exposure to local newscasts as a general rule (for my sanity). But local anchors are trusted figures too, described as “part of our community.” Social scientists believe this is because so many people “let them into their living room” on a nightly basis and share this domestic space with them. I imagine the same holds true for the weather people—even when they are dead wrong in their forecasts so often!! The irony is that they’re trusted specifically on climate change—a topic they very rarely discuss on air. All the more reason it’s cool that as a group they’re becoming more aware of the issue and their role in it vis-a-vis a trusting TV audience.
Back when I worked on raising awareness about runoff pollution in Madison, WI, our public education campaign targeted local weathercasters to help get the word out about stormwater’s power to carry nutrients and pathogens into Madison’s beloved lakes. If the weather people have the air time to show us a photo taken by a viewer (at least they were doing stuff like that back when I watched television a few years ago), then they surely have the air time to educate their viewers about air advisories, climate trends, and red tides. Besides garden show hosts (!) and interpretative park staff, they are perhaps one of our society’s most esteemed intermediaries between John/Jane Doe and the natural world, even while they stand in front of their blue screens and viewers sit on their couches.