The Weathermen Know Which Way the Wind Blows: TV Weathercasters Can Teach Climate Science

Interview with Edward Maibach and Andrew Light for Science Progress

A little more than half, or 54 percent, of U.S. weathercasters accept that climate change is happening. And in many local television newsrooms, weathercasters have become the de facto science reporters at their station. Edward Maibach, who headed a recent study surveying professionals in the field, sees this as an opportunity for enhancing their role as informal science educators.

Previous public surveys demonstrate that weathercasters are the second-most trusted source of information on climate change. For Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, that finding was unexpected. The first is climate scientists themselves, and running a distant third are “friends and family.” “That clued us into the fact that our nation’s weathercasters are a potentially important source of informal education about climate change,” he said in an interview with Science Progress. He spoke about his new research with Andrew Light, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress focusing on international energy policy, and the director of the Center for Global Ethics at George Mason. (The podcast audio is accessible at Science Progress.)

The latest study from the Center for Climate Change Communication is the largest and most representative survey of TV weathercasters to date, and its findings on how this group of professionals thinks about climate change science and news generated significant media attention, including a front-page story at The New York Times. Coverage like that is hard to earn, and Maibach is grateful for it, though he disagrees with the conclusions. Much of the media attention has been on the 25 percent of respondents who said that global warming isn’t happening at all. But as Maibach points out, the idea that this group is “a hotbed of climate change skepticism turned out to not be the case.”

“We see this as a ‘glass already half full’ finding,” he said, referring to the majority of weathercasters who accept global warming. “To the extend to which they were not currently acting as climate change educators, we wanted to identify the path to cultivate them as an important source of education for the public.”

Maibach says the data points to that opportunity, as two out of three survey respondents said they were interested in educating their viewers about the relationship between local weather and the changing global climate.

Weathercasters as informal science educators

The latest survey confirms other findings on the small fraction of dedicated science reporting at local outlets. The study reached almost 1,400 weathercasters who belong to the two major professional associations, the American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association. Almost all, or 94 percent of the 571 respondents, said they are the only full-time staffer covering science or environmental issues at their station. Some 79 percent embraced this role, a fact the American Meteorological Society already recognizes. The organization, Maibach says, sees an opportunity to embrace weathercasters as “station scientists” and is pursuing educational programs to support them.

Moreover, weathercasters share their professional expertise not just on air, but at local school and adult education events. Almost 70 percent of the respondents do between one and three speaking events each month, building loyalty that helps draw viewers to their broadcasts. According to the survey, a small proportion of these weathercasters are incorporating climate change information into their broadcasts, but a large proportion of them are finding ways to address the issue in their community presentations.

For Maibach, the “Ah-ha!” moment of the study came from looking at the responses from those participants who said they were interested in communicating more information on climate change. Ninety percent of that group indicated that a variety of relatively simple resources would help them do their jobs more effectively. They needed access to peer-reviewed journal articles, which are typically locked behind paywalls. They need to be able to interview media-savvy climate scientists. Most valuable, they said, are high-quality graphics and animations explaining key concepts of climate science. His group is now working with climate science communication experts to produce these resources.

Andrew Light pointed out that federal government already plays an important role supplying these types of resources, as NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration produce a wealth of climate science information. As well, he suggested that a move within NOAA to create a National Climate Service will further ramp up the amount of accessible information. Administrator Jane Lubchenco is particularly interested in filling this information gap, he said.

Meteorological myths

While about four out of five weathercasters are men, there is a diversity of professional and educational backgrounds within the community. Previous research shows that about half of the practicing weathercasters in the United States are meteorologists, certified by the AMS or the NWA. Some hold scientific degrees, some have journalism backgrounds, and some simply come to the role through experience in broadcasting.

But the survey results also dispel the notion that there is a rift between weathercasters and professional climate scientists, who tend to be academic researchers. “Approximately three out of four of our respondents look at climate scientists as a trustworthy source of information about climate change,” said Maibach. “That’s good news.”

The myth of this “culture gap” between meteorologists and climatologists, he said, rests on an assumption that forecasters, who struggle to model weather a few days into the future, consider it hubris to claim that they should trust climate models that are decades in scope. But the trust meteorologists say they have in climate scientists doesn’t support this idea, said Maibach.

Light suggested that the immediate media response to the survey may have rested upon this explanation, which he called “seat-of-the-pants sociology—of the working class meteorologists who ‘don’t get no respect.’” In that context, the survey fit into a particular storyline about the the continuing fallout of the overhyped “Climategate” incident, in which computer hackers stole emails from climate researchers at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. The content of the years of private correspondence revealed scientists besieged by freedom of information requests from climate skeptics, and global warming deniers said the information undermined climate science itself. A recent inquiry of the British House of Commons found no basis for either that claim, nor others leveled against the Climate Research Unit at the University, its director, Phil Jones, and the research on historical climate data the group manages.

“None of that has changed any of the overwhelming consensus on the causes of anthropogenic global warming and what are the necessary solutions,” said Light.

In the present media climate, the release of the survey data did create the opportunity for “talking head debates” on cable news, said Light, pitting high-profile weathercasters who deny climate change against scientists who accept the facts.

Setting up the discussion as a debate reinforces the notion that there is disagreement within the scientific community, said Maibach. “And that’s a totally erroneous notion.” Approximately 97 percent of climate scientists who are active researchers say that climate change is real and human-caused. “So this notion that there is still disagreement out there in the scientific community about climate change is fundamentally wrong.”

Climate change as a public health hazard

Maibach’s goal for future projects supported by this research is to enable “local weathercasters to make the connection between the conditions we are living with here, in our community, and the changing global climate.” People have a sense that climate change is “happening somewhere else,” he said, “We understand there is a problem, but it isn’t our problem.”

“The way in which the climate change story has been framed historically is as an environmental problem,” he explains, and it is unquestionably an immense environmental problem. But it is also a public health problem, and before turning to climate change research in 2007, Maibach’s career focused on public health communications. “As a result of 25 or more years in the field, I’m absolutely convinced that for the American people, health is right up along with baseball, mom, and apple pie,” he said—it is something of immense social value. He aims to engage citizens “at a fundamentally deeper, more values-based level” by magnifying research on the public health impacts of climate change.

The Obama administration focuses its discussion of climate change on jobs in clean energy industries and energy security, Light points out. Because it takes time to train scientists to communicate on the expanding set of issues, including the public health threats, it could be effective to provide that information to weathercasters in the near term.

Maibach reports that he is already working with small group of 18 weathercasters who are actively using their platform to talk about climate change as informal science education.

He is also collaborating with the weather team at WLTX, the CBS affiliate in Columbia, South Carolina, headed by Jim Gandy, to become “climate change educators in their community.” Climate Central, a nonprofit that provides scientific information on the issue, will develop graphics, and for the next year, the station will try to help its viewers better understand climate change science and the impacts the global phenomenon has on the local area. If the effort is effective, then Maibach’s group will have a strong case for scaling it.

Andrew Plemmons Pratt is the managing editor for Science Progress.