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Edward Maibach, James Witte, and Kristopher Wilson

Abstract

Television (TV) meteorologists are a potentially important source of informal climate change education in that most American adults watch local TV news and consider TV weather reporters to be a trusted source of global warming information. In January 2010, we used a Web-based survey of TV meteorologists nationwide to assess the impact of “Climategate”—the unauthorized release of, and news stories about, e-mails between climate scientists in the United States and the United Kingdom—on their beliefs about climate change; the response rate was 52%. Most respondents (77%) had followed the story; 42% of those who did indicated it made them more certain that global warming is not happening. Conservatives (57%) were more likely than moderates (43%) and liberals (15%) to endorse this view (χ2 = 49.89, p < 0.001), and those who believed global warming is not happening (74%), or who did not know (46%), were more likely to endorse the view than those who believed it is happening (25%; χ2 = 108.59, p < 0.001). Multivariate analysis showed that political ideology, belief in global warming, and gender each predicted a negative impact of the story, but certifications from professional associations did not. Furthermore, respondents who followed the story reported less trust in climate scientists (2.8 versus 3.2; p < 0.01), and in the IPCC (2.2 versus 2.7; p < 0.01), than those who had not. We conclude that, at least temporarily, Climategate has likely impeded efforts to encourage some weathercasters to embrace the role of climate change educator. These results also suggest that many TV weathercasters responded to Climategate more through the lens of political ideology than through the lens of meteorology.

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Xiaoquan Zhao, Edward Maibach, Jim Gandy, Joe Witte, Heidi Cullen, Barry A. Klinger, Katherine E. Rowan, James Witte, and Andrew Pyle

TV weathercasters are well positioned to educate Americans about the relationships among weather, climate, and climate change. Through a collaboration involving TV meteorologists, climatologists, and social scientists, we produced a series of educational segments to assess the impact of such an education. The educational segments were branded “Climate Matters” and aired over one year during the nightly weather segment on WLTX TV (Columbia, South Carolina). Prior to airing, we conducted a telephone survey of adult TV news viewers in the Columbia media market using random digit dialing (n = 1,068) to establish baseline measures; respondent screening was used to sample approximately equal numbers of WLTX viewers and viewers of competing stations. Approximately one year later, we resurveyed all available members of the baseline cohort (n = 502) and an independent sample of randomly selected residents (n = 910). The longitudinal data showed that—after controlling for baseline measures, demographics, and political orientation—viewers of Climate Matters were more likely to hold a range of science-based beliefs about climate change. A similar pattern of associations was observed in the independent sample. In short, Climate Matters improved the understanding of climate change among local TV viewers in a manner consistent with the educational content. The results of this field experiment suggest that when TV weathercasters educate their viewers about climate change, viewers gain a more science-based understanding of the issue.

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