For years, TV news meteorologist Alan Sealls has been talking to his audience in Mobile, Ala., about the weather… and climate change.
It’s a tall order. As one of the most conservative states in the U.S., Alabama isn’t always the easiest place to find traction on the climate crisis.
But he presses on.
“I try to educate wherever I can, but there are some people who don’t want to be educated. They don’t want to accept the facts,” Sealls says.
The challenge is to make the climate crisis feel relatable, and it turns out the TV weathercast is the perfect place for doing that.
When another heat wave hits, Sealls reminds his viewers, with a writ of humour, why their air conditioning bills may have been rising steadily over the years.
As recently as a few years ago, it was very unusual for climate change to be part of the public conversation, much less the weather forecast. But these days, it’s increasingly seen in the here and now, and no longer as a distant problem affecting polar bears or future generations.
That’s an opportunity for TV news meteorologists to engage the public on this tricky subject.
“We’re able to integrate data and make it simple for people to understand,” Sealls says. “That makes us the perfect people to talk about climate change.”
But that doesn’t mean talking about it is easy.
Climate naysayers represent a tiny fraction of the overall population. But they have the loudest voices, and, often, the support of influential politicians. So meteorologists have to constantly remind their audience that they’re simply relaying the scientific facts and not somehow wading into the territory of politics or advocacy.
And then there’s the challenge of just bridging the gap between “weather” and “climate.”
Weather, which meteorologists specialize in, happens in the here and now. Climate change takes place over a much longer term.
“Even though we’re seeing impacts (from climate change) now, the real outcome is decades and centuries away,” Sealls says.
Yet, more and more meteorologists are walking that tightrope, using their training and education to put extreme weather events like floods and heat waves into the larger context of climate change.
It’s a skill that Global BC’s senior meteorologist Kristi Gordon has developed over her career covering weather, and, increasingly, climate.
Last year’s heat waves in the summer and flooding in the fall was an opportunity, she says, to explain to the audience that “as our climate changes, these types of events are going to occur more often,” as opposed to simply saying that one specific event is because of climate change.
Like Sealls, Gordon is trying to make climate change a much bigger part of the conversation.
She remembers being dismissed, even mocked, by colleagues when she first wanted to include information about climate change in her weather reports.
“I remember times, specifically, where the (news) anchors would literally just walk away from me.”
But that was 20 years ago.
She persisted, though, and has always looked for nuggets of information about climate change that affect viewers where they live – and that she can “deliver in a way that’s digestible.”
These days, if she pitches a segment or story on climate, “I’ve never had anyone say no.”
The trust factor
TV news meteorologists are often the only scientists many people ever come in contact with on a regular basis. It makes sense, they say, for them to educate the public about climate change.
But, surprisingly, even they have not always been on board with the science.
As recently as 2010, about half of all TV weathercasters in the United States did not believe that climate change was real and caused by humans, according to Edward Maibach, an expert in climate change communication at George Mason University near Washington, D.C.
That rate of skepticism was significantly higher than the rate of climate ‘disbelief’ among the overall U.S. population, Maibach says.
“Even for meteorologists, climate change is complicated because meteorologists are trained in weather, which is by nature short-term.”
There were weathercaster disbelievers in Canada as well.
But the percentage of climate deniers is now in the single digits, as the number of people alarmed by the climate crisis keeps going up.
For years, Maibach has been working with the weathercaster community to understand how their role has evolved.
He says there are at least three reasons meteorologists are such great candidates for getting people to improve their understanding of our changing planet: they’ve got a lot of trust with the public, they have access to a huge audience and they have great communication skills.
“They’ve got those jobs because they’re good on TV. You turn the camera on and they can take complicated information and make it simple and engaging.”
Keeping people safe
Former TV weathercaster Bernadette Woods Placky says there’s another calculus at play for meteorologists: keeping people safe.
She says the overwhelming impetus of most meteorologists she works with in her new role as an educator is “really wanting to keep people safe and prepared.”
Weathercasters, she says, “see what’s happening, they see what’s coming, and they really do have this sense of urgency and this drive to communicate what could happen.”
They’re also great storytellers, and can effectively localize complicated scientific information.
“When there is an extreme rainfall event, we can connect that with local data in a way that can personalize (the information) in a specific town or location.”
That means talking about the impact of severe weather on crops, travel or other aspects of day-to-day life.
Global BC’s Kristi Gordon says technology is also changing the entire raison d’etre of the TV weathercaster.
“People are starting to go to their apps” to get the weather forecast, she says.
That means that there are opportunities for TV weathercasters to go beyond a simple weather forecast and include more context in their reports – especially given that climate change is making severe weather events more common.
The public, meteorologists say, is also curious and wants to know more.
Increasingly, Gordon finds herself running through the weather forecast quickly to leave more time “to just chat about the context.”
“The more we become versed in climate change, and what it means … the more we’re serving our audience,” Gordon says.
Because otherwise, people “are just going to go to their apps to find out if it’s going to be sunny tomorrow.”