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Climate Crisis: Reporting on Weather Extremes

With an El Nino weather cycle set to amplify temperature extremes, TV meteorologists have a vital role in communicating the added impact of climate change.
Reporting on climate-change related weather extremes can be a challenge for TV meteorologists

Reporting on climate-change related weather extremes can be a challenge for TV meteorologists

"As we go deeper into 2023 and El Nino intensifies, we should expect a stunning year of global extremes which boggle the meteorological mind," warned Florida weather reporter, Jeff Berardelli, in early June as Puerto Rico endured a record heatwave.

Berardelli is among a growing cadre of TV meteorologists who are making the explicit link between weather extremes and climate change

"The base climate has heated due to greenhouse warming and a strong El Nino will push us to limits we have yet to observe," Berardelli continued in a series of tweets after meteorologists confirmed the drier and hotter El Nino weather cycle has arrived.

But only a decade earlier, weather presenters were avoiding climate change.

In 2012, Rolling Stone magazine reported that in a year of extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy, record drought and wildfires, few TV meteorologists mentioned the term global warming. "The reason: There’s a shockingly high chance that your friendly TV weatherman is a full-blown climate denier."  

The rise of the climate-focused weathercaster

25 years ago, then US President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore hosted 100-odd TV weathercasters in the White House to encourage them to report the link between extreme weather and climate change.

"That was a great idea," explains Edward Maibach, director of George Mason University's Center for Climate Change Communication in Washington, DC. But for the next decade or so, the opportunity was lost.

"Unfortunately, the US government didn't follow up by producing localized materials that would make it easier for weathercasters to report on the local impacts of global climate change," he said.

Some TV meteorologists were instead targeted by climate change deniers. Many of which had links to right wing think tanks with strong fossil fuel ties and which used tobacco lobbying tactics to throw doubt on climate science.   

This so-called climate change counter movement "launched a sustained misinformation campaign to convince weathercasters that climate change was 'a hoax'," Maibach explained.  

Argentina's National Meteorological Service has been reporting record heat and a lack of rainfall in 2023


Argentina's National Meteorological Service has been reporting record heat and a lack of rainfall in 2023

A 2010 survey by Maibach's team showed that 25% of US weathercasters believed the deniers. Another 25% were "were skeptical that climate change was human-caused."

Part of the problem was the lack of "a go-to source" to clarify complex climate modelling in a local context, said Bernadette Woods Placky. The Emmy-winning former weathercaster is also chief meteorologist and director of Climate Matters, a program launched in 2010 by Maibach and researchers from the National Science Foundation to provide TV meteorologists with local climate information.

Educational programs like Climate Matters have since helped fulfill Bill Clinton's wish by making weathercasters beacons of climate change information.

"About 95% of them now accept the realities of human-caused climate change, and nearly half of them are reporting on the issue in their community," said Maibach.

So what has changed?

Making TV meteorologists bellwethers of climate information 

Climate skeptics and conspiracy theorists have lately been attacking national weather bureausthat give TV meteorologists their information. Yet the overwhelming consensus on climate science increasingly drives weather news.

Woods Placky says that while a minority of climate deniers have a "very loud" and "outsized" voice, 90% of people are open to learning more about how changing weather impacts them.   

Viewers exposed to local reports of climate-driven extreme weather have a greater desire to understand the climate emergency and its impacts, noted a 2020 study that Maibach and Woods Placky co-authored.

Renowned TV meteorologists who report the links between weather and global heating increase "acceptance of, concern about, and engagement with climate change," stated the study.

Moreover, linking local weather experiences to climate has a "much deeper resonance," said Woods Placky.

"When you look out your window and smell the wildfire smoke from Canada, it's very different to seeing a story of someone else across the world experiencing a wildfire," the meteorologist said.

And it is up to TV meteorologists who are also often from the local community and are "skilled communicators" to make this link, she added.

Climate facts versus misinformation

While TV meteorologists have increasingly incorporated climate science into their weather reporting, some have gone further, adopting the language of climate crisis and catastrophe.  

Florida TV metereologist Jeff Berardelli called the severe drought in the western US in 2021 the "worse we have pretty much ever seen seen." He blamed it on low rainfall linked to "human-caused climate change" and concluded "this is a climate emergency."

Meanwhile, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently dismissed a connection between climate change and hurricanes in his state, rejecting what he referred to as the "politicization of weather."

And media continues to report on the harassment of TV meteorologists by climate deniers, including in Germany and the UK, where Good Morning Britain weathercaster, Laura Tobin, has been accused of spreading "weather propaganda."

But she had not been deterred from linking weather to climate change.

"Fighting climate misinformation continues to be a challenge," said Maibach, explaining that one of the most recent resources produced by Climate Matters is a "Climate Myth Debunking Handbook for Broadcast Meteorologists."

"To improve effectiveness, addressing misinformation and misconceptions should be approached as a positive, educational opportunity rather than a negative, confrontational exercise," states the handbook.

The goal is not to alienate audiences or choose political sides, but to simply deliver the message.

As Laura Tobin said at the end of her recent report on the Canadian wildfires and their severe impact on air quality in distant cities and communities: "Climate change is happening here and now."

Edited by: Tamsin Walker

Courtesy: dw

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