TV Meteorologists as Local Climate Change Educators
AbstractGlobal climate change is influencing the weather in every region of the United States, often in harmful ways. Yet, like people in many countries, most Americans view climate change as a threat that is distant in space (i.e., not here), time (i.e., not now), and species (i.e., not us). To manage risk and avoid harm, it is imperative that the public, professionals, and policy-makers make decisions with an informed understanding of our changing climate.
In the United States, broadcast meteorologists are ideally positioned to educate Americans about the current and projected impacts of climate change in their community. They have tremendous reach, are trusted sources of climate information, and are highly skilled science communicators. When our project began in 2009, we learned that many U.S.-based TV weathercasters were potentially interested in reporting on climate change, but few actually were, citing significant barriers including a lack of time to prepare and air stories, and lack of access to high-quality content that can be rapidly used in their broadcasts, social media, and community presentations. To test the premise that TV weathercasters can be effective climate educators—if supported with high-quality localized climate communication content—in 2010 George Mason University, Climate Central, and WLTX-TV (Columbia, SC) developed and pilot-tested Climate Matters, a series of short on-air (and online) segments about the local impacts of climate change, delivered by the station’s chief meteorologist.
During the first year, more than a dozen stories aired. To formally evaluate Climate Matters, we conducted pre- and post-test surveys of local TV news viewers in Columbia. After one year, WLTX viewers had developed a more science-based understanding of climate change than viewers of other local news stations, confirming our premise that when TV weathercasters report on the local implications of climate change, their viewers learn. Through a series of expansions, including the addition of important new partners—the American Meteorological Society, National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Yale University—Climate Matters has become a comprehensive nationwide climate communication resource program for American broadcast meteorologists.
As of March 2016, 313 local weathercasters nationwide (at 202 stations in 111 media markets) are participating in the program, receiving new content on a weekly basis. Some leaders in the World Meteorological Organization are now promoting the concept of “TV weather presenters as climate change communicators,” and collaborative discussions are underway with Climate Central. In this article, we review the theoretical basis of the program, detail its development and national scale-up, and conclude with insights for how to develop climate communication initiatives for other professional communities of practice in the U.S. and other countries.