Who are the best people to persuade Americans with doubts about climate change that it is, in fact, occurring? The answer may be the men and women who deliver weather reports on local TV stations.
“For many people, we are the only scientist seen on a consistent basis,” wrote Jeff Berardelli, who has spent 22 years as a broadcast meteorologist. “We are a trusted local source of information, with an influence that few, if any, others have.
“Meteorologists are sewn into the unique cultural fabric of our cities and towns. We understand our people. Our people understand us. It’s us and only us, with our background in science, our communication charisma and our trusted local voice that can bridge the gap between science and society.”
How to talk about climate was a hot topic last month in Phoenix at the American Meteorological Society’s (AMS) annual meeting, Bryan Bender reported in POLITICO Magazine. A main takeaway: Avoid the phrase “climate change,” which is loaded with partisan connotations. Stop talking about who or what is most responsible, and focus instead on what is happening and how unusual it is—and what it is costing communities.
The new language taking root, Bender wrote, is meant to instill a sense of urgency about what is happening in ways that everyday citizens can relate to—without directly blaming it on human activity: The spring blossoms keep coming earlier; seasonal allergies are worsening and lasting longer; extreme heat is upending the kids’ summer camp schedule; crops are drying up or washing away at alarming rates.
And wherever possible, climate specialists told Bender, they are trying to explain the more frequent and deadly weather events in purely historical terms: These storms, these droughts, these dramatic fluctuations in temperature have previously taken place—once a century, or even once a millennium. But they keep coming.
“Over and over, we hear some version of: ‘I’ve lived here all my life, and it’s never been like this,’” said Carl Parker of the Weather Channel in Atlanta. “So, I think many are becoming aware, even intuitively, that the weather is getting worse, and that’s where we can connect the dots.”
“As broadcast professionals,” Berardelli asserted, “we know the best communication is a conversation, a two-way street, in which we meet our viewers where they are. Be honest, level with your viewers and stay far from politics. When viewers have questions or objections but are genuinely open to our expertise, engage them. Be respectful and responsive.”
“We are still not getting enough people to talk about it in the ways that matter to human beings in their homes, in their communities, for their family,” said Bernadette Woods Placky, an Emmy award-winning meteorologist who directs the Climate Matters program at Climate Central. “So it is making those connections in ways that really matter to people. It’s a jobs story. It’s an agriculture story. Connect it to the farm bill; boom!”
The strategy is being increasingly employed in more conservative regions of the country, where climate doubt still runs deep—even if there are signs of cracks in the resistance thanks to the pummeling pattern of highly unusual and costly weather events.
The nonprofit Climate Central has been working to encourage broadcast meteorologists to supplement daily forecasts about things like the polar vortex with information about climate change. Some 600 broadcast meteorologists, out of an estimated 2,200 in the United States, are working with Climate Matters to create new ways to tell their viewers about climate change.
AMS conference organizers invited Robert Mark Simpson, a professor of geography at the University of Tennessee at Martin, to talk about his three-year effort to educate farmers about climate change in western Tennessee and eastern Kentucky, where at some dinner tables the term remains a political curse word.
It’s a tall order. So he is also trying another tack to reach the political and religious conservatives whose families have been farming for generations: warning that the family business might be in jeopardy—sooner than they might think. “Will they be able to farm here 30 to 40 years from now?”
Another line of argument Simpson has found successful is an appeal to conservatives’ personal connection to nature. “Many are hunters and fishermen. They are really tied to the environment,” Simpson said. He finds he can reach them by trying to tap into their belief that “we’ve been given stewardship” of the Earth.
As the recent polar vortex plowed into the Midwest and the East, broadcasters such as Rush Limbaugh told listeners that the planet must not be warming after all. Fortunately, many TV meteorologists were explaining why the polar vortex proved no such thing--and very possibly was caused by climate change.
“As the consequences of the climate challenge mount,” Berardelli observed, “we find ourselves presented with this remarkable opportunity, a chance to use our unique skill set of science, communication and trust to be an integral ingredient in the solution to this greatest of human obstacles. We are a credible scientific source that can clear a path through confusion and help our viewers emerge at the clarity of scientific truth.”