Forecasting Climate With A Chance Of Backlash

Feb 19, 2013
Originally published on February 19, 2013 2:31 pm

When it comes to climate change, Americans place great trust in their local TV weathercaster, which has led climate experts to see huge potential for public education.

The only problem? Polls show most weather presenters don't know much about climate science, and many who do are fearful of talking about something so polarizing.

In fact, if you have heard a weathercaster speak on climate change, it's likely been to deny it. John Coleman in San Diego and Anthony Watts of Watts Up With That? are among a group of vocal die-hards, cranking out blog posts and videos countering climate science. But even many meteorologists who don't think it's all a hoax still profoundly distrust climate models.

"They get reminded each and every day anytime their models don't prove to be correct," says Ed Maibach, who directs the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, and has carried out several surveys of TV weathercasters. "For them, the whole notion of projecting what the climate will be 30, 50, a hundred years from now, they've got a fairly high degree of skepticism."

And yet, Maibach has found that many meteorologists would like to learn more and would like to educate their viewers. A few years back, he hatched a plan and found a willing partner in an unlikely place.

Prepared For Backlash

"I loved it. That's exactly what I wanted to do," says Jim Gandy, chief meteorologist at WLTX in Columbia, S.C.

Gandy had actually begun reading up on climate change several years earlier, when — to his surprise — a couple of geology professors at a party asked whether he thought global warming was real. Gandy was disturbed by what he learned and was game to go on air with it, even in what he calls a "dark red" state with a lot of "resistance" to the idea of climate change.

"We talked about it at length," he says, "and we were prepared for a backlash."

Researchers at George Mason University, with the help of Climate Central, tracked down information specific to Columbia, something many local meteorologists, with multiple weather reports a day, simply have no time to do. They also created graphics for Gandy to use whenever the local weather gave him a peg. And Gandy's local TV station gave him something precious: 90 seconds of air time in the evening newscast.

The segment was called "Climate Matters," and Gandy kicked it off in late July 2010. He dove in deep, packing his limited time with tidbits usually buried in scientific papers. One segment looked at what Columbia's summer temperatures are projected to be in 40 years. Another explained how scientists can track man-made global warming, since carbon dioxide from fossil fuels has a specific chemical footprint.

Gandy also made the issue personal for viewers, reporting on how climate change will make pollen and poison ivy grow faster and more potent. He says people stopped him on the street about that.

And the backlash? There were a few cranky comments. "To my knowledge," Gandy says, "there was at least one phone call from someone saying they needed to fire me." But generally, the series went over well.

Better Informed Viewers

Meanwhile, researcher Ed Maibach polled people before Climate Matters began, then again a year into it. He says compared with viewers of other local stations, those who watched Jim Gandy gained a more scientifically grounded understanding of climate change, from understanding that it's largely caused by humans, that it's happening here and now and that it's harmful.

"All of this is the kind of information that will help people, and help communities, make better decisions about how to adapt to a changing climate," Maibach says.

Maibach hopes to expand the experiment, eventually making localized climate research and graphs available to meteorologists across the country. And there are other efforts to help weather forecasters become climate educators.

Last March, longtime Minnesota meteorologist Paul Douglas, founder of WeatherNationTV, posted an impassioned letter online urging his fellow Republicans to acknowledge that climate change is real.

"Other meteorologists actually emailed me and said, 'Thanks for giving voice to something I've been thinking but was too afraid to say publicly,' " he says.

Douglas is part of a group pushing to tighten certification standards for meteorologists.

"If you're going to talk about climate science on the air," he says, you would "need to learn about the real science, and not get it off a talk show radio program or a website."

After all, both he and Gandy say it's becoming harder to separate weather from climate. That means TV weathercasters will be busier, and more closely followed, than ever.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Politicians are not an especially trusted source on the subject of climate change. Most Americans, these days, turn to scientists, first, for information. And the group that comes in second: local TV weather forecasters. Trouble is, surveys show most forecasters don't understand climate science. And those who do, often avoid talking about something that can be polarizing.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports on efforts to change that.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: If you have heard a weathercaster speak on climate change, it's likely been to deny it. John Coleman in San Diego is among a group of vocal diehards: blogs, videos, TV specials.

JOHN COLEMAN: The global warming frenzy is based on a myth, a scientific hypothesis that has gone bad.

LUDDEN: But even many meteorologists who don't claim it's all a hoax, profoundly distrust climate models.

ED MAIBACH: They get reminded, each and every day, any time their models don't prove to be correct.

LUDDEN: Ed Maibach heads the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. He has surveyed TV weathercasters.

MAIBACH: For them, the whole notion of projecting what the climate will be 30, 50, a hundred years from now, they've got a fairly high degree of skepticism.

LUDDEN: And yet Maibach found many meteorologists want to learn more, and want to educate the public. He saw huge potential so he hatched a plan, and in 2010, found a willing partner in an unlikely place.

JIM GANDY: I'm Jim Gandy. I'm the chief meteorologist at the CBS affiliate here in Columbia, South Carolina, WLTX.

LUDDEN: Gandy had already been reading up on climate change for years. He was disturbed by what he'd learned, and was game to go on air, even in what he calls a dark red state with a lot of resistance to the idea of global warming.

GANDY: We talked about it at length and we were prepared for a backlash.

LUDDEN: Ed Maibach and other climate experts researched climate specifically in Columbia, South Carolina. They also created graphics for Gandy to use whenever the local weather gave him a peg. And his local TV station gave him something precious: 90 seconds of air time in the evening newscast.

GANDY: It certainly has been hot around the area this summer and in tonight's segment on Climate Matters we take a look at the July temperatures.

LUDDEN: Gandy dove in deep, packing his short time with tidbits usually buried in scientific papers, like what climate models predict Columbia's temperatures will be in 40 years and how scientists know global warming is manmade.

GANDY: They can identify the carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, because it has a specific chemical fingerprint.

LUDDEN: He also made the issue personal for viewers.

GANDY: Well, here's another story that you don't hear every day and I'm just itching to tell it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What?

GANDY: It's about poison ivy.

LUDDEN: A study looked at what increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere does to plants.

GANDY: Poison ivy grew fastest and it became more toxic.

LUDDEN: Gandy says people stopped him in the street about that. And the backlash? A few cranky comments and calls, but in all, the series went over well. Meanwhile, researcher Ed Maibach polled people before Climate Matters began, then again a year into it. He says those who watched Jim Gandy learned a lot more about climate change than viewers of other stations: that humans largely cause it, it's happening here and now, and it's harmful.

MAIBACH: All of this is the kind of information that will help people, and help communities, make better decisions about how to adapt to a changing climate.

LUDDEN: Maibach hopes to expand this kind of effort and he's not alone. Last March, longtime Minnesota meteorologist, Paul Douglas, founder of WeatherNationTV, posted an impassioned online letter. He urged his fellow Republicans to acknowledge climate change is real.

PAUL DOUGLAS: Other meteorologists actually emailed me and said thanks for giving voice to something I've been thinking, but was too afraid to say, publicly.

LUDDEN: Douglas is part of a group pushing to tighten certification standards for meteorologists.

DOUGLAS: If you're going to talk about climate science on the air, that you need to learn about the real science.

LUDDEN: After all, both he and Jim Gandy say it's becoming harder to separate weather from climate and that means TV weather casters will be busier, and more closely followed, than ever. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.