Climate change science has long been embattled by misinformation campaigns, resulting in public distrust and the political polarization of the science. Your local weathercaster is seizing the opportunity to change that.
John Morales was just beginning his career in meteorology when American attention to climate change started to heat up. Dr. James Hanson’s foreboding 1986 and 1988 congressional testimonies warned of the dangers of inaction on global warming, and his statements made ripples across the nation. It resonated with Morales.
“I went to the White House as part of a group of 100 broadcast meteorologists that were invited from around the country,” says Morales, chief meteorologist at NBC 6 in Miami.
Vice President Al Gore addressed the group in a presentation that would become “An Inconvenient Truth,” the Oscar-winning documentary about climate change, and challenged them to incorporate climate change in their local on-air broadcasting.
“It was a tremendous event,” Morales says. “I personally left there very energized, having known the science already, being aware of the threat.”
It was a charge Morales took very seriously. For as scientific attention to the threats of global warming grew, so, too, did a parallel movement to quell the public’s access to that information. In fact, many researchers draw a direct line from today’s political divisions over climate change to the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when Republican congressional efforts led by Newt Gingrich aggressively pushed back against early climate change mitigating measures, like Bill Clinton’s proposed B.T.U. tax based on the heat content of fuels, which ultimately failed.
Morales realized he was in a unique and oddly powerful position to educate the public about climate change.
“We’re in their living rooms and even bedrooms every day and night,” says Morales of local TV weathercasters. “People may not be familiar with who the director of NASA is, but they’re certainly familiar with their local meteorologist.”
Morales reckoned if the public didn’t have access to reliable climate science, he could help bring it to them.
Climate change science has long been embattled by misinformation campaigns, resulting in public distrust and the political polarization of the science. Part of the difficulty, says Edward Maibach, Director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, is that people perceive climate change as a distant threat: posing problems in the future, to faraway places, to other species. By and large, we have a hard time locating ourselves in the reality of climate change unfolding now, here, and to us.
“In short, we’re not wired to pay attention to slowly mounting threats,” says Maibach.
But according to recent surveys, the majority of Americans now believe something is happening with the climate. Credit is due to the rise in organizations dedicated to not only studying the future of our warming climate, but researching the ways people think and talk about the issue. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, Climate Central and the Climate Impact Lab are just a few organizations making powerful waves in how we communicate on the subject. As a result, climate change educators now know that a basic presentation of scientific facts is no longer enough to sway public opinion. Rather than speaking in grand, sweeping terms and figures, researchers emphasize the importance of applying and translating the science to localized concerns.
That idea is embedded in an incredible range of educational initiatives and interactive tools recently developed to demonstrate how the impacts of climate change will manifest. For example, the Climate Impact Lab is responsible for a feature on the New York Times, showing individual readers how much hotter their hometowns are today than the years in which they were born.
The key, researchers say, is to curate climate science to particular communities. Tailoring the information makes the science more relatable and digestible.
“It’s a global issue, but you feel it locally. You respond to it locally,” says Bernadette Woods Placky, Director of Climate Matters. “Getting the information out is really to connect with people where they are, through trusted messengers, through localized information and personalized information. It’s meeting people where they are and answering their questions that matters.”
Climate Matters has wholeheartedly picked up that torch. The National Science Foundation-backed project works with broadcast meteorologists and journalists to connect the realities of climate change to communities across America, doing so by producing a regular flow of scientifically-sound reporting resources to help local markets disseminate the most pertinent information. Its parent organization, Climate Central, is an independent nonprofit organization researching and reporting on the science, impacts and solutions of climate change.
Though Climate Matters is growing in both scope and reach, its success belies the initial riskiness of its 2010 inception. The pilot testing hinged on a 2008 poll conducted by George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
“[In it] we learned that TV weathercasters are highly trusted sources of climate change information by members of the public,” says Maibach.
The research intrigued a network meteorologist named Joe Witte, who contacted Maibach about leveraging TV weathercasters as climate change educators.
“[TV weathercasters] are on the front lines of this,” says Woods Placky. “They are the face, to a lot of the world, of science and extreme weather, which is how many people experience climate change. They are in a very unique position.”
The idea begat a collaboration, which yielded a research team and a test subject: broadcast meteorologist Jim Gandy and WLTX-TV in Columbia, South Carolina. It was a gamble, attempting to slip climate science into a conservative media market.
Though the researchers braced for complaints and outcry, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
“That station’s viewers ended up learning more about climate change as a local problem than did viewers of other stations,” says Maibach. “Viewers say things like, ‘Thank you. No one except you ever tells us about how climate change is affecting us here. That is important information.’”
Today Climate Matters works with national and local outlets, and has grown to include more than 630 weathercasters across the country. A Spanish language component was recently developed, and the project is expanding to serve journalists. Woods Placky says 170 journalists are already signed up.
The solemn, admittedly forced, silver lining of climate change is that as it accelerates, there will be more opportunities for climate change educators and communicators.
“Climate change is not just a weather story,” says Maibach. “It’s also a health story, and an economic story, and an agricultural story and a public safety story.”
John Morales, who was an early participant in Climate Matters, notes Floridians are especially hungry for dispatches about climate change.
“I think south Florida is very attuned to the threats of climate change, particularly sea-level rise which is such a—down the road, certainly—an existential threat to our community,” Morales says. “I think people are very receptive to hearing information about this threat.”
He says Climate Matters is making his job, and those of other forecasters, easier. It’s just a matter of stepping up.
“Climate Matters calls me one of the first 16 broadcast meteorologists out of 2000 across the country to tackle this, to do it on air,” Morales says. “I’m proud to be one of those few that was maverick enough to take this on.”
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