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The Station Scientist’s Responsibility to Report on Climate Change

For decades, broadcast meteorologists and weather presenters have been asked to provide on-air support and analysis on everything from earthquakes and meteor showers to rocket launches and aircraft accidents. A request to discuss these science-related subjects often comes from the TV-news directors, who see their weather anchor as their “station scientist.”

But in the United States, you rarely – if ever – see a station scientist receive a request from the manager to discuss climate change on a newscast. Anthropogenic global warming is very likely the greatest scientific challenge facing humanity in this century. Yet, unless a weather presenter takes the initiative to discuss climate change on the air, it rarely happens.

The main reason for this, of course, is well known. Unlike the rest of the world, in the U.S. climate change is a politicized subject. News directors and station managers are afraid that they will upset a part of the audience by having their weather presenter discuss the facts and consequences of global warming.

In certain cities and states, the percentage of the audience that may be “offended” by climate change information is significant. Broadcast meteorologists know that their bosses experience varying degrees of nervousness – fear – about the potential impact to viewer ratings from an “unpopular” climate change presentation.

But as we have advanced further into the 21st century, the effects of climate change have become undeniable. Weather presenters – even in America – are seeing many more opportunities to discuss climate on the air. When done right, there is little chance that anyone will be “offended.”

I have found that the best way to do it is to always tie-in climate change to an ongoing event. So, for example, if there’s excessive rainfall in Florida, I will discuss the details of the event and always remind the audience that the propensity for heavier rainfall is increasing as the world warms.

Recently, I’ve discussed the numerous heat-related records we’ve set in Miami, adding details such as the unbalanced ratio of record-heat to record-cold readings (which was approximately 5-to-1 in the United States in 2016). In tracking hurricanes well into the North Atlantic, I discuss the warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures linked to global warming that are allowing stronger cyclones in more poleward latitudes.

In addition, American weather presenters have had the benefit of Climate Central’s “Climate Matters” program, which for the past three years or more has provided data and graphical support to aid in the presentation of climate change related subjects. Their graphics are tailored for each television market, making it extra-easy to use on-air.

In August 2007, former AMS president Bob Ryan and I co-authored an editorial in the Bulletin of the AMS (BAMS) urging broadcast meteorologists to divorce themselves from personal, political and religious biases and present the state of the science of climate change to their audience.

Today, almost 10 years later, I see positive momentum in this area. But a lot more can and should be done. Sometimes, it takes courage to take that first step. This is a time, like no other, to be courageous.