Local Meteorologists Are Making the Climate Connection
Who do you trust?
In this particularly divisive moment, it’s an important (and more complicated than ever) question. In the US, polling shows we trust the military, small business, police, and our churches but not major corporations or the criminal justice system – and especially not Congress.
We’re also pretty skeptical of national television news, but maintain much warmer feelings about our local reporters. According to the 2018 Poynter Media Trust Survey, 76 percent of Americans have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in their local TV news, a full 21 points more than we have for national broadcast coverage.
If that sounds big, it’s because it is – and it’s why we’re so grateful to the local meteorologists out there who are stepping up to the plate to relay the truth about the climate crisis to audiences in cities, towns, and villages all across the country.
More and more local meteorologists are using their air time to communicate what this crisis means at the community level, making it real for their viewers in ways global forecasts and broad pronouncements can’t always do. In some parts of the country, these science professionals are going out on a limb, running the risk of alienating a large segment of their audience, which may know little about the science of climate change or may even be hostile to the very words, thanks to years of politicized disinformation.
But as the truth of this crisis becomes ever-clearer – and ever-more-evident in escalating local impacts – TV meteorologists are refusing to play it safe. They have an important job to do – and they know it.
A Big Job in a Small City
“I have become very aware that not only is this a problem, but it’s real and I need to make sure that I’m communicating that as best I can,” chief meteorologist at ABC15 News in Phoenix Amber Sullins told Yale Climate Collections. “For a lot of people in my viewing area, I’m the only scientist that they are ever going to see or meet, so I have a responsibility.”
That assessment – of the responsibility of a scientist to accurately report on climate – seems to have taken hold in the meteorological community.
“We are also in many cases the main liaison between the science community and the general public,” Greg Fishel, chief meteorologist at WRAL in Raleigh, North Carolina also told Yale Climate Connections. “So we have a tremendous responsibility to make sure we’re not letting any ideology into our science reporting. That we are dealing with facts and relaying them as accurately as we can to the public.”
A Changing Atmosphere
It wasn’t always this way – and there’s certainly a lot more work to be done. But major, fast-moving changes in attitudes about climate change among local weather forecasters may account for this incredibly important shift.
A 2010 survey by George Mason University and the University of Texas at Austin found that only about 54 percent of local meteorologists believed “global warming was occurring and fewer than a third believed that climate change was ‘caused mostly by human activities,’” the New York Times writes.
Just eight years later, that number had leapt to 95 percent, and according to George Mason University (via NBC News) that’s translated into a 15-fold increase over the last five years in the number of stories on climate change by television weather forecasters.
Still, many local meteorologists – roughly a quarter of those survey by George Mason – worry that discussing the issue on the air would inspire negative feedback from the management of their respective stations.
Meanwhile, while many feel they’ve come a long way when it comes to understanding the science of climate change, others believe the topic exists just outside their expertise.
“More than eight in ten (85 percent) of all weathercasters feel they understand the science of climate change at least ‘somewhat well,’ although less than two in ten (17 percent) believe that they understand it ‘very well,’” according to the George Mason survey.
Weather forecasters, after all, are trained to focus on the day-to-day (i.e. weather); climatologists instead look at long-term trends (i.e. climate), like average temperature over decades or even centuries. But there’s an important caveat here too, one that’s inspiring many local meteorologists to go the extra mile: Climatologists don’t get to spend up to five minutes every night in front of a trusting television audience.
So as climate and weather become even more inexorably linked in the popular imagination, many local meteorologists are seeking out additional education, including from our friends at Climate Central, whose “Climate Matters” educational program provides free-of-charge resources to local meteorologists and journalists “interested in telling engaging local, science-based stories about how global climate change is impacting their community, why it matters, and what can be done about it.”
Why Local Climate News Matters
Local meteorologists are such effective advocates for climate science because the nature of their work brings an at-times-overwhelming crisis down to the community level. They focus on what’s happening right now, right here – and how unusual it all is in the moment.
In their hands, climate change feels less like a far-off, paralyzingly enormous societal problem or a global burden. Instead, in the hands of a trusted voice you might run into at the supermarket, it becomes a hyper-local issue, one that directly impacts real people you know in their homes and communities. One that puts the livelihoods and health of friends and neighbors at stake right now.
And local issues can be solved. By you. By me. By a neighborhood coming together to take urgent action when it matters most.
Suddenly, with the weight of the literal world off your shoulders, solutions feel tenable. One neighbor invests in home solar, discovers it’s cheaper and easier than they ever believed, and another follows suit. A family decides to transform their lawn into an edible landscape to cut back on maintenance in the face of ever-increasing water restrictions from the drought they keep hearing about on the news at 10. Seeing how great (and yummy!) it all looks, someone from down the block stops by to see how they can do it too. More and more young people start showing up to town council meetings to voice their opposition to a new fracking site. A small business commits to transition to 100 percent renewable electricity, and after others see the benefits, the dominoes begin to fall up and down Main Street.
And that’s just to start.
So thank goodness for TV meteorologists. Since the advent of local news, they’ve been keeping us informed and safer – from icy or snow-bound backroads, from powerful thunderstorms and heavy rains, from dangerous heat and cold. And now, from the greatest threat facing communities big and small all across the world.
Braving Powerful Headwinds
Telling the truth shouldn’t be controversial. Especially when it’s as plain as the rain and as simple as the snow.
For many television meteorologists, though, telling the truth about how climate change affects our weather can bring on a real backlash. But still they keep at it, bravely bringing the truth to millions of Americans every day. We think it’s time to give them a high-five and say, “Thank you.”
This Valentine’s Day, we’re giving local meteorologists a little love to thank them for standing up and sharing the truth of this crisis when it matters most. Click here to learn more.