The newest tool in teaching about climate change: the weatherman

A South Carolina pilot project expands

In March of 2013, CJR awarded a laurel to a meteorologist in the midst of a promising project: Jim Gandy, a weather forecaster at WLTX in Columbia, SC, had been incorporating segments on climate change into the daily forecast. Since 2010 Gandy has been airing the segments, called Climate Matters, using visuals developed by a team at Climate Central to add a climate angle to things that regularly pop up in the weather report. Developed by Ed Maibach, who founded the Center for Climate Change at George Mason University, and Joe Witte, a climate communicator for NASA, the project’s aims are simple: to see if adding climate science to the weather forecast improves knowledge of the subject.

In some Climate Matters segments Gandy branches out of the forecast to examine the big picture—for example, how the winter rainfall has decreased over four decades, on average, about three quarters of an inch. In a springtime segment he explored how carbon emissions change the pollen season. “Plants use that carbon dioxide to grow bigger, faster and produce more pollen,” he told viewers. During a snowfall Gandy tracked the warming of winters in South Carolina since the 1970s, noting to viewers, “this is only about half the rate the rest of the country’s been warming.”

By design the weather forecast is the perfect place to spark discussion of climate change; it’s one of the only places where a viewer encounters discussion of the climate. But in practice, global warming is absent from the forecast—meteorologists-in-training study atmospheric science, not climate science, making them better able to predict the chance of rain than contextualize it. It’s a system of study that some suggest might translate to attitude: According to an earlier poll by Maibach, explored in a 2010 CJR cover story, just under 10 percent of weathermen don’t believe in global warming. “We tend to ignore the things that you can’t ignore when you’re in climate science,” says Gandy.

The dependability of weather forecasters makes them particularly potent science communicators: In one survey, 66 percent of respondents named television weather reporters as the most trusted source of information on global warming, a larger percentage than named Al Gore. This is what caused Gandy to embark on a self-directed course of study. Even without training, Gandy thought, weather forecasters were being called upon to become global warming experts by default.

In the last year, Gandy’s received plenty of recognition for his innovative version of the forecast. On May 6, he was invited to the White House for the unveiling of the National Climate Assessment, where he interviewed President Obama from the Rose Garden lawn. (He was also invited to sit with Michelle Obama during the last State of the Union, an invitation he declined at the behest of his editors, lest it signify political sway.) In 2013 he won the American Meteorological Society’s Award for Excellence in Science Reporting, which one can read as a statement of the association’s interest in climate change reporting.

The interest appears to expand beyond the American Meteorological Society; during the pilot year of Climate Matters, the team attempted to measure whether the change in forecast was having any effect on the beliefs of the population, data that was published earlier this year in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

Maibach surveyed just over 1,000 Columbia residents who regularly watched WLTX and watched other news stations, assessing their beliefs on global warming before the segments aired. A year later, the project revisited the WLTX viewers, comparing them to a control group, to find out if they remembered watching the Climate Matters segments and whether their views on global warming had changed.

The result is in part a statement of the difficulty of surveying: Over the year, viewership between WLTX and other networks fluctuated, making it difficult to create a clean sample set. “Learning differences in freestanding communities is very, very hard to do,” says Maibach. “It took a certain amount of chutzpah on our part to even try to evaluate the effectiveness of the pilot.” But promising pieces of information surfaced: WLTX viewers who recognized several stories from the Climate Matters Series were more certain that global warming was happening versus viewers of other networks and were more likely to hold views that align with scientists regarding global warming.

“What we learned, essentially, is that people who watched WLTX became different over time, developed beliefs in climate change that were consistent with the scientific evidence and with what Jim Gandy was talking about on air and on his social media’s website,” says Maibach. Moreover, the respondents in the survey who did not report as WLTX viewers at the beginning of the survey became viewers over time, while fewer regular viewers departed the network—meaning the mass exodus the team worried would result from the coverage didn’t happen.

Now, Climate Matters has expanded far beyond WLTX: Just under 150 different markets air a localized version of the programming with their own weather forecasters, while Maibach and the Climate Central team have launched a more substantive 18-month test to stations around Washington DC and in both Richmond and Roanoke, VA.

“There’s nothing in there that says that Climate Matters drove those people to our TV station,” says Gandy, “You cannot make that conclusion, but one of the things we learned is it did not turn people off. You can talk about climate change to the audience and it doesn’t make them go away.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis. Tags: , , , ,