Covering Climate Now

TV weathercasters in the US shifting public opinion on the climate crisis

(Clockwise from top left) Mr Keith Carson, Ms Elisa Raffa, Ms Heather Waldman and Mr Jorge Torres are among the meteorologists and weathercasters who have begun addressing the climate crisis.
(Clockwise from top left) Mr Keith Carson, Ms Elisa Raffa, Ms Heather Waldman and Mr Jorge Torres are among the meteorologists and weathercasters who have begun addressing the climate crisis.PHOTOS: KEITH CARSON/FACEBOOK, METEOROLOGIST ELISA RAFFA/FACEBOOK, METEOROLOGIST JORGE TORRES/FACEBOOK, HEATHER WALDMAN/TWITTER

NEW ORLEANS - Local TV weather forecasters in the United States have become foot soldiers in the war against climate misinformation.

Over the past decade, a growing number of meteorologists and weathercasters have begun addressing the climate crisis either as part of their weather forecasts, or in separate, independent news reports to help their viewers understand what is happening and why it is important.

And the reports are having an impact.

Studies by the George Mason University Centre for Climate Change Communication show that in communities where local weather forecasters are reporting on the climate crisis, "public opinion is changing more rapidly", said Professor Ed Maibach, director of the centre and an author of the studies.

"We showed a really strong impact - people who saw the climate reporting came to understand climate change was more personally relevant," he said.

The change has come as meteorologists and weather forecasters themselves changed their opinions on the climate crisis and its causes. In 2008, a survey of some American Meteorological Society members found that only 24 per cent of weathercasters agreed with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that warming was caused by humans. In 2010, a study by Prof Maibach found that 54 per cent agreed that global warming is happening. By 2017, a full 90 per cent agreed that climate crisis is happening, and 80 per cent indicated it was human-caused.

"There's been an enormous shift," he said.

The change has been partially brought about by Climate Central's Climate Matters reporting programme founded after Prof Maibach released a study showing that the public has a high degree of trust in local forecasters.

"All TV weather forecasters are really good science communicators," Prof Maibach says. Not only are they scientists, but they are trusted by their viewers because they don't generally report on politics or other controversial topics, he says.

Today, more than 600 TV weathercasters participate in the programme, which provides training, scientific information, charts and videos for education and newsroom use.

Here's a snapshot of four of those local TV news forecasters.

'YOU HAVE THE CHANCE TO SHIFT THE PUBLIC VIEW A LITTLE'

Keith Carson, WLBZ/WCSH, Maine

At the beginning of his career, Mr Carson wasn't fully on board with the idea that climate crisis was occurring and it was caused by humans. He began working in the field in 2006. Today, though, he says: "Frankly it's getting harder and harder to deny it scientifically."

And now he knows how easy it is now for anyone to twist facts and create even more divisiveness.

These days, he regularly shares information about the climate crisis and other scientific topics with viewers through a nightly science segment called Brain Drops.

 
 
 

For Mr Carson, the issue is bigger than just climate change. "If people are going to dismiss science and the scientific process, it opens the door for other regressions," in scientific thinking.

He talks about climate change with his viewers about once every two weeks. "I think it's important to do, but not to hammer it daily. It's against human nature to change minds, and hammering it home daily would make some people dig in more." He approaches the topic like many of his colleagues do, by simply presenting the facts about what is happening.

Weathercasters, he says, have a unique opportunity because they are an integral, well liked part of the community, "and you have the chance to shift opinion a little".

While Mr Carson does get some pushback from viewers, most of those who comment on his climate reporting are not his viewers, he says.

FROM STORIES ON BREWERIES TO RANCHERS: FIND A WAY TO RELATE

Elisa Raffa, of KOLR10/KOZL, Springfield, Missouri

Ms Raffa, a self-described science geek, believes her job is to educate her viewers about how climate change will impact them. She's done stand-alone news segments about how climate change will impact fishing in local lakes, a local coffee shop and a local brewery. One piece detailed how ranchers must be more careful with their cattle as black vultures move into the region because of warming temperatures.

"It gets people to look at climate change outside of the political realm," she says.

She is careful to ask objective questions about things such as precipitation and temperature, and rarely outwardly underscores climate change as the problem. Her sources usually do that themselves. That hits home with viewers who see climate change from a relatable perspective.

"Climate change will impact us in so many ways, and I love teaching my viewers and helping them learn how they can prepare and adapt and be more resilient," she said.

In addition to her special reports, Ms Raffa talks about the climate crisis in subtle ways during her forecasts. She highlighted a recent uptick in morning high temperatures hoping to show her viewers that overnight temperatures are increasing.

"This is what I signed up for," she said. "This is a science issue. It's my duty to communicate this to the public. If I don't, who is going to?"

'I USED TO BE MORE SUBTLE … BUT NOW WE SEE MORE EFFECTS'

Jorge Torres, KOB-TV, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Over his career, Mr Torres, chief meteorologist at KOB, has become bolder in addressing climate change. "In the beginning I was more subtle, but as more and more facts become apparent, I am more open now saying this is human induced. For me, the biggest aspect is carbon dioxide," he says. "We are seeing that increasing globally and we are seeing the effects locally."

Earlier this year, Mr Torres did an extensive news piece on the issue of water in New Mexico and how smaller snow pack will impact the state's water supply. Temperatures are getting warmer and warmer as well, he says, a fact that he points out during his daily forecasts.

Whenever the weather story allows him to say something about the climate crisis, he does, but he ensures it is in the proper context.

The bottom line is that he wants viewers to be open-minded about it. "Don't just hear something and dismiss it."

THE FORECASTER QUOTING BUBBA GUMP

Heather Waldman, WGRZ, Buffalo, New York

As the trusted "station scientist", Ms Waldman says that talking about the climate crisis is a natural fit for her and other weathercasters. "It fits in our identity."

 
 
 

Ms Waldman and her station have unveiled a series of short, entertaining and informative videos called "the climate minute", that are online and are scheduled to run this week on TV.

The one-minute videos are time-consuming to produce because while Ms Waldman uses information from Climate Matters, she also does her own research, reading IPCC and other reports.

She says she decided on short one-minute videos because she doesn't want to lose the audience's attention.

"The audience isn't going to pay attention to anything for more than a couple of minutes and we use succinct, catchy images. The goal to find some sort of thing, where people say oh, this will have an impact - this is affecting me right now."

On an upcoming piece on how ocean acidification is affecting shrimp populations, she is using restaurant Bubba Gump Shrimp quotes to keep it fun.

"Intrinsically we have the responsibility to present not just weather facts but climate facts - we don't want to pontificate, but we want to make them actionable and entertaining."

This story originally appeared in The Guardian. It is republished here as part of The Straits Times' partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.