Weathercasters See the Light on Climate Change - Pacific Standard

Weathercasters See the Light on Climate Change

A new survey shows 90 percent are now convinced the phenomenon is real.
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Steve Carell as Brick Tamland, who probably doesn't believe in global warming. (Photo: Apatow Productions)

Steve Carell as Brick Tamland, who probably doesn't believe in global warming. (Photo: Apatow Productions)

Many people grow attached to their favorite TV weather forecaster. He or she is, after all, an important person in viewers’ lives, providing impactful information on a daily basis.

So it was disheartening to read a 2010 article in the Columbia Journalism Review that revealed a startling disconnect between climate scientists and on-air meteorologists. A survey of 121 such broadcasters—who are, for many people, a primary source of information regarding the natural world—found that 29 percent did not believe climate change is really happening.

But there's hope: new national survey of 464 broadcast meteorologists suggests many minds have changed in the past five years. It reports more than 90 percent have concluded that climate change is real—and of that group, 90 percent believe human activity is at least partly responsible for this phenomenon.

Meteorologists’ skepticism may be waning as they witness the impact of climate change for themselves.

Weathercasters still tend to underestimate the extent of the scientific consensus on the subject. But this survey finds most take the phenomenon quite seriously, and a significant number are using their positions to help educate their viewers.

The study, conducted by the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, suggests meteorologists’ skepticism may be waning as they witness the impact of climate change for themselves.

Of the respondents who believe climate change is real, 66 percent report the average temperature in their region has increased over the past 50 years. Forty-five percent report a greater number of heat waves, and 43 percent have noted a larger number of heavy downpours. More than three-quarters said they expect those trends to continue in their area over the next 50 years.

Just over one-third of the respondents said they had informed their viewers “about the local impacts of climate change” over the air. Thirty-five percent claimed to have done so on their station’s website, while 20 percent have posted relevant information on their personal blog. A large majority said they were interested in reporting on climate-impact stories, including flooding, drought, air quality, and the impact on wildlife and agriculture.

Don’t expect too many such reports in the near future, however. TV news tends to stick to stories audiences want to hear, and in the meteorologists’ opinion, 70 percent of their viewers are only “moderately” or “slightly” interested in the subject. They estimate only 21 percent are “extremely” or “very” interested.

Given other surveys suggesting Americans see climate change as a serious issue but put it near the bottom of their priority list, these estimates sound about right. The challenge for meteorologists, then, is to utilize their well-honed communication skills to educate viewers in a compelling way.

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