Climate change, conflict, and TV weather

How politics affects the view presented by weathercasters

March 1, 2013 | Broadcast meteorologists are a leading source of information about the atmosphere for the general public, but many of them avoid mentioning global warming on the air. New research finds several barriers that may keep weathercasters from addressing the science of climate change.

Vanessa Schweizer (NCAR Advanced Study Program) is part of an NSF-supported team based at George Mason University that’s been studying climate change communication by weathercasters.

This is a major issue, because polls show that local television news is more heavily watched than network news or The Weather Channel and that local weathercasters are among the most trusted of all sources of information on climate change. Yet in a 2011 survey of more than 400 weathercasters led by GMU’s Edward Maibach, only 19% agreed that global warming was real and primarily caused by humans, whereas 35% felt it was due to a mix of human and natural causes and 29% believed it was primarily a natural phenomenon.

To get a clearer picture of what’s motivating or demotivating weathercasters, the GMU group conducted 49 in-depth interviews with weathercasters and moderated a workshop that drew on methods used for conflict analysis and resolution. Analyzing their feedback, Schweizer identified three main types of barriers.

  • Occupational:  Given that local TV news is a highly competitive business, some weathercasters fear that discussing climate change could cast them or their stations in a negative light.

  • Social:  Because climate change is such a highly charged topic, there’s a natural tendency to avoid conflict by avoiding the subject.

  • Cultural: Among the 35% of weathercasters in the above-mentioned survey who cited both natural and human factors in climate change, many stressed the uncertainties inherent in any research conclusion. Some also feared that politics might be affecting the research itself, including the ways in which scientists presented and discussed their policy-relevant findings. The 29% of weathercasters who viewed climate change as primarily natural had even deeper reservations about the process of climate science, including peer review and funding decisions.

These findings suggest that making educational resources more available to weathercasters might have only a limited effect in boosting how often climate change is addressed on the air. “Conflict becomes a primary barrier,” notes Schweizer. “In this case, the conflict may be more about the relationship between science and society than about climate change per se.”

No matter how they viewed the causes of climate change, weathercasters tended to agree that possible changes in the frequency and/or severity of extreme weather events were a real concern. This suggests the potential for weathercasters to discuss climate-related trends in the context of disaster preparedness. Broadcast meteorologists have long held such a role for daily weather, especially in tornado- or hurricane-prone areas.

Schweizer presented her findings in recent talks at the University of Colorado Boulder and the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union, She is now summarizing the work for an upcoming book on culture, politics, and climate change.

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