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Come on, UK weather forecasters – tell it like it is on climate change

By Adam Corner on March 20, 2019

People have a right to know what’s behind their flooding or heatwave. The UK is lagging behind other countries.

In the flooding two cars trapped further down where the water was more than knee deep.

Weather forecasters have a national reach that most climate campaigners would die for. They are familiar and respected experts on the science of meteorology. And they have prime-time slots at the end of almost every TV news bulletin, morning, noon and night. But the weather forecasters who guide everything from our clothing choices to our weekend plans seldom – if ever – mention the issue that is increasingly shaping our beloved British weather: climate change.

This week, former BBC weatherman Bill Giles broke cover, and called for the BBC and other major broadcasters to overhaul their approach to forecasts, and add in information about the crucial context of climate change to their predictions about the daily weather.

While the weather can’t always straightforwardly be equated with a changing climate, the impacts of climate change are no longer a hypothetical concern, or a discussion for the future. Climate change is with us now, and is manifesting through rising temperatures, more violent and unpredictable storms, and heavier rainfall.

What Giles rightly highlighted is that while weather forecasting continues to operate in a vacuum while the climate changes around us, it is abdicating its duty to provide accurate, scientifically-grounded meteorological advice to the public. Don’t people have a right to know how their climate is changing? And aren’t weather forecasts the obvious place to alert us to these new risks that we face?

In fact, the UK is lagging far behind many other countries in terms of integrating what we know about climate change with the information provided to the public about the weather. In the notoriously polarised US, a brilliant programme led by George Mason University in Virginia and Climate Central has supported more than 600 TV meteorologists to contextualise their weather forecasts with information about the changing climate.

Similar successes have been seen in Australia, where a programme run out of Monash University provides localised climate information in their weather segments. In Belgium, the weather forecaster Jill Peters has made a career from campaigning on climate change. So the silence from British broadcasters is troubling, and Giles’s intervention is long overdue.

In a sense, the broadcasters’ nervousness is understandable – for a long time, it simply wasn’t possible to make definitive statements about the relationship between weather and climate. Communicators were faced with a catch-22 situation: make speculative statements about extreme weather and climate change, or sit on their hands while the very changes scientists had been predicting for decades materialised around them.

But the science of ‘‘attributing’’ weather events to climate change has accelerated rapidly. It is now possible to say with confidence how much more likely (or how much more intense) a storm, or a heatwave, was made by climate change. Statements about the links between weather and climate still need to be made carefully, and in line with the science. But this kind of probabilistic, risk-based guidance is the bread and butter of TV weather forecasters, and they’re the perfect people to give audiences an insight into how the climate is changing.

None of this means that accurate information about the risks of climate change is a panacea for public engagement on climate change. Its now well understood (and more than ever in thisera of “fake news”) that accurate evidence alone is unlikely to move the dial for people who don’t want to hear it. And simply hammering people with information about the risks of climate change could be counterproductive.

The social science of climate communication points to the importance of striking a motivating balance between hope and fear in public messages. In practice, this means not only raising the alarm about the often terrifying consequences of a changing climate, but also providing advice and support on what people can do to save more energy, waste less food, or lobby their MP to prioritise climate change.

Clearly, our humble weather forecasters can’t do this all on their own. But the inspiring rise of the school strike movement is proof of the frustration and urgency with which young people view the issue that will define their lives, and suggests the era of side lining climate change as something that environmentalists worry about, while the rest of us get on with our lives, may finally be coming to an end.

From the way we eat, travel and heat our homes, to the conventions that govern our weather forecasts, climate change needs to move from the margins and into the mainstream – and fast. A daily public narrative that joins the dots between the weather patterns we see outside our windows, and the unprecedented changes now under way in the global climate, is one crucial piece of this puzzle.

Previously published in The Guardian

No responses to Come on, UK weather forecasters – tell it like it is on climate change

  1. christopher lakeland says: says:

    ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’. I am retired from over forty years in the Met Office and from personal knowledge know that we have been consistently telling the country that climate change is a reality. Even with the compelling evidence of the last twenty years, the message still falls on deaf ears, climate change deniers and those who would pass the buck to the next generation. If the blame for the lack of communication has to be laid at someone’s door then the broadcast media and ultimately the government are responsible. With the move to the BBC providing commercially sourced forecasts to the public, there has been an increase in ‘sound bite’ meteorology that can be accommodated in a two minute national or a thirty second local broadcast. This gives little time to those presenters who do have a background in meteorology, not all by any means, to inform and educate the public on the causes and consequences of climate change. It is a sign of our times that the BBC can allot more minutes per broadcast hour on advertising box sets on BBC I-player than minutes per month on climate change. If there is to be a new approach it has to come from the top. The BBC gets its revenue from the licence fee and the government control the level and review the service provided. If there is a will to implement changes at the top, this could filter down but with increasing commercial demands on the BBC the omens do not look good. Climate coverage on the broadcast media will continue to be reactive to extreme events and as soon as the events pass so will the coverage. There needs to be a radical change in the government’s approach to informing the public via all forms of broadcast media as the present policy of leaving it to individuals and pressure groups may be too little, too late. The Met Office would love to have the time to disseminate the latest information on our climate emergency to the public, so don’t blame the weather presenters, blame their masters and the times we live in.

By Dr Adam Corner

Adam Corner is a writer and independent researcher who specialises in climate change communication and climate/culture collaborations. Adam worked with Climate Outreach between 2010-2021, helping to build the research team, developing Climate Visuals and Britain Talks Climate, and establishing the centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST). Adam has published widely on public engagement with climate change, from academic journals and reports for NGOs to media commentary (including for the Guardian and New Scientist). Currently Adam’s work is split between strategic climate communication projects (like the Local Storytelling Exchange), writing and contributing to reports, and developing the climate communication evidence base into music and cultural spaces.

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