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In era of weather extremes, TV forecasters become climate educators

Increasingly, weather forecasters help the public learn about the connection between climate science, extreme weather, and their own safety.

By Stephanie Hanes, Staff writer | September 10, 2021

Last week, as Hurricane Ida weakened on its way out of Louisiana, CBS News meteorologist Jeff Berardelli tweeted out a warning.

“This is not getting the attention it deserves,” he wrote, alongside a graphic of the storm system traveling toward the Northeast. “Many people are going to wind up with water in their homes or worse.”

The next morning, he took to the air to talk about how climate change was making weather events like Ida far more dangerous, putting the storms “on steroids.” Later that day, more than a half a foot of rain fell in the New York region over just a few hours. More than 45 people died, many in cars or basements overcome by floodwaters.

“Climate change spikes these events nowadays, in a way that didn’t happen 20, 30 years ago,” Mr. Berardelli says.

For him, Ida was proof not only of a changing climate’s impact on weather. It was a reminder of the need for his profession to keep educating viewers about climate science – and to help them get out of harm’s way. This is an increasingly common view among broadcast meteorologists; a shift in approach and mindset that, along with changes in forecast technology and the way people get weather information, increasingly puts them at the intersection of extreme weather, public safety, climate science, and public trust.

“We’re seeing more and more broadcast meteorologists mention climate change and discuss how it’s impacting their local areas – the kinds of things that you would like to have the general public understand better,” says Keith Seitter, executive director of the American Meteorological Society. “They feel their viewers are seeing these changes. They are getting questions. You know, ‘Why is this happening’ ... questions that are making it easier for them to feel comfortable that they should be including [climate change] as part of what they’re talking about to their viewing audience.”

This is a relatively recent trend, say those in the industry. A decade ago, surveys showed that broadcast meteorologists, as a group, were more skeptical of climate change than the general public. But over recent years, according to research from Missouri State University and George Mason University, the percentage of those weathercasters concerned with climate change has increased rapidly, moving closer in line with the attitudes of climate scientists overall.

John Morales, a broadcast meteorologist in Miami, Florida, remembers when he was one of the few people in the industry talking about climate change – and when he had to resist pressure from bosses who would want to “balance” his reporting with comments from climate change deniers.

“I think things have evolved,” he says. “Over the past five or 10 years, news managers have realized, yeah, climate change is real, it’s here, it’s serious.”

At the same time, he says, meteorologists are increasingly comfortable making connections between climate change and the weather they’re seeing in their local areas.

“It’s really taken off of late for them to give climate context on air,” Mr. Morales says. “It’s much more so today than, gosh, even two or three years ago.”

That perception is backed up by research. Edward Maibach, director of George Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication, says climate reporting by television weathercasters is up some sixtyfold today compared with seven years ago.

And this, according to some studies, has an impact.

While there is conflicting research about whether extreme weather events change Americans’ views about climate change, George Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication found that when broadcast weathercasters make the connection, people are more likely to shift their views.

In an experiment published in 2020, researchers compared viewers’ reactions to different types of weather reports in the Chicago and Miami television markets. Viewers who saw reports that made connections to climate change were more likely to worry about climate change, believe it was happening, and also want to take action to address it. That was true even for Republican viewers, who tend to be more skeptical of global warming.

“It’s very helpful when a trusted local TV meteorologist educates his or her viewers about how global climate change is changing conditions in our community,” says Dr. Maibach. “It’s a whole different conversation when a local TV meteorologist does it. Meteorologists aren’t seen as political. … It’s a profoundly local conversation. It provokes a different way of processing the conversation.”

In 2010, the climate science research group Climate Central created the Climate Matters program to help create and distribute climate science content to broadcast weather forecasters. Over the past decade, it has expanded from one pilot project in South Carolina to include more than 1,000 weathercasters across the country, says Bernadette Woods Placky, a former television meteorologist who now directs the program.

“There’s a heightened interest in what’s going on,” she says. “More people are listening, more people have questions. And think about it, when your house is washed away, or your car is washed away, you’re looking at the world differently.”

There are some skeptics, though. Jon Krosnick, director of the Political Policy Research Group at Stanford University, says his research has shown broadcast meteorologists have minimal effect on people’s views about climate change.

Indeed, Dr. Krosnick says, very little changes views on climate change at all – including the extreme weather events of this past year. According to his research, more than 80% of Americans already believe in human-caused global warming, and some 60% already want the government to do more about it. Those numbers are no different now than they were a year ago, he says, before the country’s recent widespread heat waves and flooding events, and before a United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report explicitly tied extreme weather to climate change.

“These efforts at persuading American citizens about the existence of climate change, about the causes of climate change, about the seriousness or threat of climate change – all of that stuff is what magicians call misdirection,” he says. “It’s working on a problem that doesn’t exist.”

But for many in the meteorological community, convincing people about climate change is less about advocacy than it is about what they say is the underlying mission of broadcast weathercasters: keeping people safe.

Along with a growing familiarity with climate science, says Mr. Morales, weathercasters as a group are connecting to rapidly advancing forecasting technology – computing tools that can help pinpoint everything from the local impact of a storm to the likelihood that it will evolve into a disaster amplified by climate change.

“The way that forecasts are built these days are just so radically different than the way they were built five, 10 years ago,” he says.

Brenda Ekwurzal, director of climate at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says that meteorologists are exploring new uses for weather apps, including ways to share the best evacuation routes away from a hurricane.

And it was weather buoys in the Gulf of Mexico, she adds, that revealed the warm water in Ida’s path – a situation meteorologists across the country knew would likely make the storm far more ferocious.

“It’s really, really important that the data is there, that it’s becoming available,” she says. “Meteorologists have the hard job of telling people that there’s a risk.”

© The Christian Science Monitor. All rights reserved.

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