NEED FOR A WEATHERCASTERS' WORKSHOP ON CLIMATE SCIENCE.

Understanding the Science of Climate Change: A Workshop for Broadcast Meteorologists

What: Approximately a dozen television weathercasters and 15 climate scientists met in a workshop setting designed to build lines of communication between broadcasters and scientists and enhance weathercasters' ability to deliver climate science to their audiences.

When: 12 August 2011

Where: University Park, Pennsylvania

Despite the many and varied platforms from which individuals currently get weather information, local television weathercasters remain a trusted source because of their familiarity and proximity to viewers. A recent national survey found that 54% of Americans watch local television news for most of their weather information (Rasmussen Reports 2011). In addition, television weathercasters are increasingly viewed as station scientists, called on to provide information to their viewers on a wide variety of science-related issues, including climate science and climate change (American Meteorological Society 2010).

However, a significant percentage of television weathercasters hold views inconsistent with the scientific consensus about climate change (Wilson 2002, 2008, 2009). For example, 41% of American Meteorological Society (AMS) weathercasters surveyed indicated that their main obstacle to reporting on the topic was “too much uncertainty” in climate science (Wilson 2009, p. 1457), while 29% agreed with the statement (made by a well-known television weathercaster) that “global warming is a scam.” In addition, the unauthorized release of e-mails between climate scientists and the news coverage that followed (collectively known as “Climategate”) further eroded television weathercasters' confidence in climate change science (Maibach et al. 2011). In short, when compared to the general population of atmospheric science professionals, television weathercasters are disproportionately wary of climate science and anthropogenic climate change.

With this landscape in mind, the Department of Meteorology at The Pennsylvania State University hosted a workshop for broadcast meteorologists entitled “Understanding the Science of Climate Change.” The stated goal was to empower weathercasters by enhancing their ability to deliver climate science to their audiences while also building lines of communication between broadcasters and climate scientists. Weathercasters from 31 television stations were invited, representing all television markets in Pennsylvania as well as Youngstown and Steubenville, Ohio, and Elmira and Binghamton, New York.

A dozen television weathercasters representing seven stations as well as the moderator of the global climate change blog on Accuweather.com, located in State College, Pennsylvania, attended the full-day workshop. In addition, approximately a dozen Pennsylvania State University faculty and staff (not including the speakers) from a handful of departments attended at least part of the workshop and participated in the discussions.

LECTURES AND DISCUSSION.

The agenda featured five lectures, a lunchtime speaker (the Pennsylvania State climatologist), a question-and- answer (Q&A) session with two prominent atmospheric scientists, and a short presentation about current efforts to assist weathercasters in improving their ability to communicate climate science. Topics covered included basic climate science, paleoclimate, the instrumental record, climate modeling, and climate impacts. To encourage frank and open dialogue, approximately half the agenda was devoted to discussion, allowing attendees to view the climate change issue from two markedly different perspectives. Broadcasters shared their experiences in attempting to cover and communicate climate science with viewers and news directors, while scientists expressed their concerns about the lack of public acceptance of their work.

The workshop began with an “open forum” in which the weathercasters were encouraged to relate their experiences communicating climate science. Collectively, they reflected on the difficulty in covering climate change because viewers often react emotionally and politically from both sides of the issue. For example, one broadcaster (Joe Calhoun, WGAL) was criticized for presenting climate forecasts in light of the limited predictability of weather. As a result of such negative audience response, several broadcasters had been told by their station managers to avoid the issue. Another difficulty expressed by broadcasters in covering climate science is the lack of public interest in the subtleties and uncertainties. Rather, the broadcasters argued that headline-grabbing statements and stories make it to the newscast. Along these lines, Brett Anderson (Accuweather.com) pointed out that people tend to focus on very recent events instead of long-term trends, cherry-picking those that support their viewpoint.

Five short lectures followed the open forum. Raymond Najjar (The Pennsylvania State University) began with an overview of the climate system, including the Earth's energy balance, the distinction between climate and weather, and the carbon and water cycles. The role of the greenhouse effect in maintaining the Earth's surface temperature was emphasized, as was the distinction between forced and natural climate variability.

Richard Alley (The Pennsylvania State University) reviewed climate change throughout Earth's history, including how information is acquired through proxy records and the science behind the causes of past climate change. He showed extensive evidence from several time scales that carbon dioxide is a first-order driver of global climate change.

Chris Forest (The Pennsylvania State University) presented the instrumental record (roughly the past century) of climate change. The overall message was that there are multiple lines of evidence of a warming world (e.g., ice caps, air temperature, and ocean temperature) over the past century and that anthropogenic factors (including carbon dioxide, aerosols, and other greenhouse gases) dominate the long-term changes in radiative forcing during this time.

Global climate models (GCMs) were then discussed by Keith Dixon (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). He focused on GCM structure and skill and the use of GCMs for understanding past climate variability and for making future projections. The distinction between weather and climate was reinforced by articulating the former as an initial value problem and the latter as a boundary value problem.

Lastly, Klaus Keller (The Pennsylvania State University) gave an overview of the science of climate impacts. Specific examples from past climate change included the response of agricultural production to temperature extremes and human mortality to heat waves. Keller showed how response functions can be informed by historical data, how these response functions can be combined with climate projections to estimate future impacts, and how the uncertainties in these impact projections can be estimated.

The climate scientists addressed a variety of questions from the broadcasters, varying from ones as straightforward as the cause of the current CO2 rise to more difficult questions about attribution. Regarding the latter, the “loaded dice” analogy was used, wherein a particular weather event is viewed as random but climate change has the effect of giving greater likelihood to certain weather events (loading the dice). Other questions included “Do atmospheric composition changes have local impacts?” and “Why do El Niño events have an impact on global mean temperature?”

Some of the communication and policy challenges surrounding climate change were explored in a Q&A session entitled “Atmospheric Science in the Public Eye,” with The Pennsylvania State University's William Brune and Michael Mann. Brune conducted research on the Antarctic ozone hole during a period when the causes were unclear and policy proposals were highly controversial. Mann is a central figure in climate science as a result of his highly publicized reconstructions of climate over the last few millennia. The similarities and differences between the ozone hole and global warming provided for an active discussion. Brune emphasized the surprising nature of the ozone decline and the multiple theories that abounded about its cause. Mann was asked if Climategate has made it more difficult to communicate his results. He responded that because none of the pillars of evidence supporting anthropogenic global warming has changed, it is increasingly obvious that those criticizing and denying the science lack credibility.

OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES.

The last formal session of the day, led by Jon Nese (The Pennsylvania State University), was entitled “Television Meteorologists as Climate Change Educators.” Nese described a project led by Edward Maibach of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University (GMU). The project's premise is that local television weathercasters have an unrivaled opportunity to educate the public about climate change. Currently an on-air pilot test of broadcast-ready climate change educational materials is being conducted at WLTX-TV in Columbia, South Carolina. A follow-up National Science Foundation (NSF) proposal intends to create additional resources to help interested weathercasters cover climate change and to increase dialogue (and reduce conflict) between climate scientists and weathercasters with differing views. While many broadcasters are currently interested in communicating climate science, they do not have the time and resources to compile materials. Therefore, this GMU climate communication project was viewed as an approach with much promise.

The day concluded with a wrap-up discussion. Several of the broadcasters wondered why there was so much interest among the climate scientists who attended the workshop. The climate scientists expressed their frustration at the lack of public acceptance of their work; one even went as far as saying that climate scientists have been rejected and therefore need broadcasters' help in getting the science to the public. Some broadcasters, in turn, claimed that there is too much effort toward convincing and forcing a certain point of view, referring to one climate scientist's statement that “If a meteorologist can't speak to the fundamental science of climate change, then maybe the AMS shouldn't give them a Seal of Approval” (Cullen 2012). In short, some broadcasters expressed chagrin with the message they receive that the science is completely settled. There was a sense in the room, however, that the climate issue had become far too politicized, with even the relatively benign terms “climate change” and “global warming” becoming discussion flash points.

A recent development further illustrates the difficulties that weathercasters face in addressing climate science. In early 2012, a blogger posted a list of television meteorologists who he claimed were “deniers” of climate change, based on public statements they had made (Johnson 2012). Although some individuals on the list have strongly and clearly dismissed anthropogenic warming, many others are more nuanced in their assessment (a point easily lost because the blogger used only partial quotes). In either case, such actions promote divisiveness and defensiveness, not positive dialogue, and can further intimidate television meteorologists from even broaching the subject of climate and climate change. Workshops such as the one at The Pennsylvania State University can help create a level of trust between broadcasters and climate scientists that overcomes such intimidation and opens doors to more productive communication.

In the weeks following the workshop, weathercasters were forwarded a list of names of scientists at The Pennsylvania State University to use as contacts for information and commentary on climate-related issues. The organizers also solicited feedback from both weathercasters and climate scientists. Those attending unanimously agreed that the goal of establishing lines of communication between the two groups was met. One broadcaster commented, “I thought it was great, very informative, good dialogue, I think it should be a yearly thing.” Another broadcaster said, “I liked that there was ample time for discussion. I came away with a better understanding of the science and research. I think there is an appetite for climate and environmental stories.” A third television meteorologist added, “It was nice to have all of the professors and researchers in one room.” Several attendees suggested that any future workshops should also include current undergraduate students who are interested in broadcast meteorology. Ken Davis (The Pennsylvania State University), who attended but did not give a formal presentation, noted that “the parallel that arose between weather forecasts and climate forecasts was very instructive for the weather forecasting community.” Richard Alley (The Pennsylvania State University) observed that “we're clearly facing an interesting challenge in communications. But, I think we made a good step in the right direction.”

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