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A Plea to Weather Presenters

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This extremely hot summer morning I watched a couple of hours of weather reports on several local and national networks.  In the United States we’re coming off a busy holiday travel week, but extreme temperatures, a tropical storm, western wildfires and heavy rains in various parts of the country threaten plans for millions of people.  

When “severe weather events” are in the forecast, television presenters have perfected a protective but warning voice, gently encouraging us to be prepared, to seek out alternate routes, to wear our sunscreen, go to cooling centers, move inland, etc.  They share our surprise and shock (yes, shock) at the strange and unpredicted weather afflicting us these days.  They often imply that this is unusual and it will all go back to normal.  In fairness, it often does, when the heatwave or hurricane season ends.  

Except they, as meteorologists and climate scientists, actually know it’s not going back to normal.  They know that severe weather will only grow more severe and more frequent.  Maybe they don’t think it’s their job to educate the public about climate change, and since every news program needs high viewership to survive, they are motivated to steer clear of tough climate change discussions. In my two hours of viewing this morning, only once did an interviewee even mention climate. 

Presenters therefore find themselves in a pickle, needing to remain trusted and liked, while knowing the population really ought to understand the nuances of climate change, and the roles we all can play to help moderate it.  

My call to weather presenters is that they must assume, or at least must share, the mantle of responsibility for interpreting climate change to the public.  When you think about it, weather is the daily manifestation of the climate.  Changing weather patterns are a result of the changing climate.  Weather presenters should make this connection more explicit and take some responsibility.

This is a big shift.  Weather presenters and news organizations should steadily undertake this shift.  My suggestion is to start slowly and modestly, and gradually take on larger questions.  I have a couple of ideas for near term steps.  

Be Statistically Explicit

First, presenters should incorporate contextual data supporting things they are already saying.  The presenter doesn’t need to call this “climate change,” because doing so could be perceived as alarmist.  How about instead something less alarmist?  For example, how many times have you heard a presenter say “record high temperatures today”?  What does that even mean?  To listeners it means “really, really hot,” and nothing more.  

What if instead there were a quick visualization, maybe a time series  that showed that a) Of the one hundred years of recording high temperature on this calendar day, the five hottest have occurred over the past ten years? Or b) Today’s temperature is 20 degrees above the mean?  Or c) “Today’s high is 90 degrees which exceeds the previous high by 3 degrees.”  There are easily a dozen similar pieces of data that could be contextualized to show that weather is changing more quickly and dramatically.  Again, no immediate need to call it climate change.  Let the contextualized data do the talking.  

Link Weather to Decarbonization

Another possibility is to give weather presenters additional segments in a newscast describing consumer and business opportunities to clean up their act.  They could discuss solar, or heat pumps, or wind, or EVs, or Direct Air Capture.  They need not explicitly or heavy-handedly connect these subjects to climate change or criticize dirty fossil fuels. However, their role in presenting these subjects implicitly connects the alternatives to severe weather and climate change.  

Link Good Weather to Good Behavior

In the Mountain West where I live, a weather phenomenon called “inversion” has trapped smog up against the eastern mountains, leading to many bad air days.  Over recent decades, changes in industrial production have made the air a lot better.  The weather presenter should be the one telling this retrospective story, again reinforcing the link between our behaviors and their effect on weather.

Conclusion

News networks invest a lot of time and effort building the brand, credibility, and trustworthiness of their weather presenters.  Therefore the public believes in them, probably more than anyone else, on matters related to weather and climate.  It’s time for presenters to leverage this trust and gently steer us towards an understanding of the links between climate change and extreme weather.  .  

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