My former colleagues in the broadcast meteorology field have certainly had a busy past year. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria devastated the Texas coastline, Florida, and Puerto Rico, where thousands still suffer power outages. Wildfires spread across the West Coast. I know broadcast meterologists’ first job is to protect life and property, but on this Earth Day, I wonder how many of my former colleagues have mentioned climate change in their longform coverage of these natural disasters.
It was not so long ago that climate change was a topic broadcast meteorologists would not bring up. Some still don’t. The reasons are complicated, ranging from what meteorologists are taught in college to not wanting to upset their viewers. But they are increasingly changing. I’ve spoken to many former colleagues who want to start having these conversations on air and doing what they can to inform the public about the issue.
When I started on the air in the mid-’90s, climate change just wasn’t something many of us talked about, including me. I was way more focused on the shorter-range forecasting, preparing my audience for the weather of the day and week.
But the more I learned about the science, the more that started to change. In 2013, I was the chief meteorologist at the ABC affiliate in Lynchburg, Virginia. And that fall, when the world’s leading climate scientists had released their latest update on climate change, I thought it was time to speak up about how our planet was changing. This was science, not policy.
I was still concerned that many in my audience did not want to hear it. However, the information was important, so I made the decision to highlight the key findings on the air one evening that fall. Since 1901, global sea levels had risen 7.5 inches and the average temperature had risen 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit, I said. And this was primarily a result of the increasing greenhouse gas concentration from the burning of fossil fuels.
After discussing on the air, I shared a post summarizing what I had said on air. I mentally prepared to face any negative reaction. But in the end, I was surprised and somewhat relieved that I received only one comment about it:
I don't really like the news, but people need to hear it.
No hate mail came; no fussing from my news managers ensued. I realized that I could do this. I started to feel better about discussing climate change on the air, and slowly began peppering in climate change facts whenever possible. I still had to be cognizant of not going too far so as to not repel a conservative audience. Occasionally, I would get a cranky Facebook comment. But I was surprised at how little backlash it ultimately caused.
This experience sowed the seeds for me to help other meteorologists talk about climate change on the air. For much of the public, meteorologists are the only scientists people see on a daily basis, so they have a unique position in the media landscape. Talking about climate change from that position could make a real difference in how the public discusses climate change and its solutions. It’s something we increasingly have a responsibility to do.
Not all meteorologists are required to study climate science
Most meteorologists knew they wanted to study the weather from an early age. I’m no different. My two fascinations as a child were weather and astronomy. I had no idea who would pay me to look at the stars and planets, but a good forecast was always in demand, so I chose to study meteorology.
Aside from two courses I took in college on climate change and variability, I wasn’t someone who was deeply interested about climate change. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in climate science. It’s just that I didn’t have to learn much about it — you don’t need a deep understanding of the climate system to be an operational forecaster. It is not necessary to understand long-term climate variations, like the coming and going of ice ages, when following an advancing line of damaging thunderstorms.
When I think about climate science and the forecasting community, there is still a bit of a disconnect. It may be the lack of exposure to the subject when someone was at college. Those who study climate science look at the entire earth system, including the atmosphere, oceans, biosphere, and cryosphere, as well as how Earth relates to the sun. But for those who study weather forecasting, not much time is spent exploring those additional topics.
Instead, we look at how individual weather systems develop. So you can certainly take climate science as a complementary elective course, but it’s not one that is necessarily required. There are also some weathercasters who are self-taught or who take correspondence courses rather than studying meteorology in college, where they might take classes in climate science.
There is also a group within the forecasting community that doesn’t like the way the subject is covered in the news. Some are still not convinced it's real, and others view it as overstated and sensationalized by partisan media. I am painfully aware of how politicized the subject has become. In broadcast meteorology, the number of eyes on you ultimately drives your salary and your livelihood. You don’t want to upset your managers or give viewers a reason to turn you off. I have spoken to broadcast meteorology colleagues about this topic, and those concerns are very real to them.
Nonetheless, as my broadcast career moved forward, I thought it was important to remind my viewers that climate change was already occurring and the impacts were going be more noticeable. Watching the glaciers and permafrost melt across the Arctic was the evidence that convinced me most.
I began to talk more about climate change on the air, like discussing how much warmer Virginia has become since the first Earth Day in 1970. I started a blog specifically about climate change to share more with my community. If there were things I didn’t understand, I went after the scientific answers the best I could, steering clear of outside, nonscientific influences.
While weather inspired me to pursue my career in meteorology, this new desire to learn more about climate science inspired me to take the next step in my career.
There’s been a huge shift in attitudes toward climate change among weathercasters in recent years
In 2014, after nearly 20 years as a broadcast meteorologist, I saw a change in both the climate and the broadcast meteorology landscape. On the climate front, I knew evidence of climate change would only become stronger. On the broadcasting front, it seemed more meteorologists wanted to approach climate change on air, although some struggled with how to go about it.
In both cases, my gut was right. The planet has set a record for its warmest year for three years running. Intense heat waves and rising seas have taken a toll around the world as atmospheric carbon dioxide continues to rise to levels unseen in the history of human civilization.
Evidence of a shift in attitudes became clear in surveys of broadcast meteorologists. In 2010, a George Mason University survey indicated that 53 percent of broadcast meteorologists say global warming is indeed happening. A similar 2017 survey indicated that number had jumped to 95 percent. However, that same 2017 survey only indicated 49 percent were convinced it has been mostly or entirely due to human activity, so there is still work to be done to bring the science home. When an opportunity arose to make a career shift allowing me to convey the science to a broader audience, I wanted to investigate.
That’s how I ended up shifting careers to work at the nonprofit Climate Central, a group that provides research and multimedia to broadcast meteorologists to help them tell the story of climate change. Leaving broadcast meteorology was a career risk, but I believed in the work Climate Central was doing, getting the best science in the hands of broadcast meteorologists.
I now spend my time working with meteorologists on the forefront of weather and climate communication. The stories behind the growing number of meteorologists talking about climate change are as fascinating as the numbers.
Greg Fishel, a meteorologist at NBC in Raleigh-Durham, has been at his station since 1981. He was given the opportunity to do a longform documentary about climate change, which took him all the way to the Arctic Ocean shore town of Barrow, Alaska, located in a region warming about twice as much as the rest of Earth. He often uses social media to continually engage the public about the issue, including skeptics. Those skeptics are loud on his social media feeds, but he is not afraid to engage them, treating it as an opportunity to showcase the state of the science beyond just a few talking points.
It’s not just broadcast meteorologists. I was in Houston in July — long before there was a hint of Harvey — having dinner with a couple of meteorologist friends who work in the energy industry, a group that tends to lean conservative. They look at decadal trends in weather patterns for their energy clients, trying to determine if the summer will be particularly hot or the winter particularly cold, all in the service of helping energy companies plan for consumer demand.
One of them, a converted climate change skeptic, told me, “You know, I don’t understand why some people in the energy industry haven’t accepted it, especially after these last few years. Ten years ago, they kept saying, ‘Just wait, we’re about to go back into a cooling period,’ but that has obviously not been the case.” It's the kind of conversation I would never have had with them a decade ago.
We have a huge platform. With that comes a responsibility to inform our audience.
I understand there are still broadcast meteorologists who do not want to discuss climate change. They have their reasons. Some may not accept that humans are playing a role. Or maybe they feel like it’s not their job to discuss topics on which they’re not experts. However, at most television stations, they are the only people on air with any grasp of earth sciences, and that puts them in a unique position.
Like it or not, meteorologists will be asked by the news managers to discuss high-profile science events on the air. Any time there is an earthquake, volcanic eruption, or astronomical event, the meteorologists are needed and required to put those events into context for viewers. At the core, that is part of the job, and climate science is no different from geology or astronomy.
Having sat in the same chair as other broadcast meteorologists, I understand their constraints, but there is also an opportunity to lead. That’s why I’m working to help produce materials for them to use to quickly answer the questions the public has. According to a 2017 Yale/George Mason University survey, 70 percent of Americans are convinced global warming is happening. Even in my old broadcasting backyard of central and southwest Virginia, a traditionally conservative area, that percentage is in the 60s.
The public’s questions and concerns about climate change are likely to grow. We have had two major landfalling hurricanes in the US within weeks of each other. It’s inevitable that meteorologists will be asked about the role climate change played. The same goes for extreme heat, heavy precipitation, and coastal flooding, all of which are on the rise due to climate change.
Broadcast meteorologists are some of the most qualified people in the media to discuss the subject and are the liaison between the public and the research-based scientific community. Increasingly they are stepping up, and we hope to see it continue.
Sean Sublette is a meteorologist with Climate Central’s Climate Matters program, working with broadcast meteorologists across the country to communicate the science of climate change to the public. He previously worked as a broadcast meteorologist for 19 years in the Roanoke-Lynchburg, Virginia, television market.