A laurel to WLTX meteorologist Jim Gandy

For tackling climate change science in a red state where politics can polarize it

COLUMBIA, SC — Four years ago, an academic climate change researcher and a Washington, DC-area meteorologist were looking to team up on a project with a brave TV weathercaster—but it couldn’t be just anyone.

They wanted a partner working in a particular market who was willing to air educational segments about climate change during the local newscast—and who wouldn’t back down in the face of criticism.

The researcher is Ed Maibach, who founded the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. He was writing a National Science Foundation grant with Joe Witte, at the time a DC-area meteorologist and now a climate communicator for NASA. And though the pair found several good candidates for their project, one really stood out: WLTX’s Jim Gandy, who works as the chief meteorologist for the CBS affiliate in Columbia, South Carolina’s capital city.

“Jim was the best because he worked in the toughest market,” Maibach told me.

I asked him what that meant.

“Highly conservative viewers,” he said.

In other words, viewers who were more likely to be skeptical of the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is caused by human activity. That skepticism is shared by a surprising number of TV weathercasters, as Charles Homans wrote for CJR in 2010. And even when weathercasters aren’t outright hostile, most “don’t know much about climate science, and many who do are fearful of talking about something so polarizing,” NPR reported recently, based on the findings of a 2011 survey published by George Mason.

Gandy, though, isn’t afraid. He told me he runs into people all the time who doubt global warming, and he’s willing to engage anyone about it.

“I do accept the science that increasing [carbon dioxide] significantly leads to a warming of the earth,” he said. “We know that the increase in CO2 is largely the result of burning fossil fuels, which is a human activity. I am not afraid to say that it is happening because the science is crystal clear on this point.”

The fruit of Gandy’s partnership with Maibach and Witte is Climate Matters, a 90-second segment that’s been featured on WLTX newscasts with increasing frequency since 2010 and has its own webpage at the station’s site. The partnership gives Gandy access to climate data specific to the Columbia market. And an independent group of scientists and journalists, called Climate Central, provide support with time-consuming graphics.

“Since the 1970s each decade has been warmer than the previous decade,” Gandy said in one recent segment. “As we continue to pump heat-trapping pollution into the atmosphere, we’re going to continue to see this trend.” You can see the video below:

Gandy, who began studying climate change on his own in 2005, also writes a weather climate blog, which occasionally offers sharp media criticism—like this Feb. 28 post going after a pair of editorials in Investor’s Business Daily.

Before launching the segments, “we were prepared for a backlash,” Gandy told NPR’s Jennifer Ludden.

So has it happened? According to the NPR story:

There were a few cranky comments. “To my knowledge,” Gandy says, “there was at least one phone call from someone saying they needed to fire me.” But generally, the series went over well.

Gandy’s efforts to promote discussion and knowledge about climate change are especially striking in light of other developments in the Palmetto State. Less than two weeks ago Sammy Fretwell, environmental reporter for The State, Columbia’s hometown newspaper, uncovered a year-old report outlining the hazards South Carolina will face in a warming planet. The report had been prepared by a team of state scientists but never released by the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

According to The State, the 2011 draft report warned of elevated rates of wildlife disease, increased coastal flooding, and more severe droughts, among other effects. The study was never made public, Fretwell reported, because officials say their “priorities have changed.”

Asked by a local reporter if Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, who overhauled the natural resources board last year, had buried the report, her spokesman said that the governor believes the “focus of analysis should be less on the sources of climate change and more on the solutions.”

It’s against this backdrop that Gandy has been running his Climate Matters segments. And researcher Maibach says the effort has paid off with viewers, “and we have the data to prove it.”

The George Mason center evaluated the impact of Gandy’s newscasts on the local TV audience after the first year. “His viewers learned more about climate change than viewers of competing stations in Columbia over the course of the year,” Maibach says. (A paper describing the findings is currently under review at the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.)

Now, Maibach and his team are expanding their project, launching pilot programs in three Virginia media markets. Chief meteorologists and TV news directors from around the D.C. area and Northern Virginia, Richmond, and Roanoke are heading to George Mason next weekend for a workshop about it, he says.

I asked Maibach what he would tell weathercasters who want to wade into the climate change discussion, but might be timid about striking polarizing political chords.

“TV meteorologists who wish to educate their viewers about how climate change is affecting their community need to stick to the science,” he said. “The science is quite clear: the climate is changing worldwide, and the weather is changing in communities across America as a result, often for the worse.

“Some viewers, and some politicians, don’t currently believe this, but that shouldn’t stop weathercasters from educating the much larger segment of viewers who do want to learn more about how climate change is affecting their community.”

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Corey Hutchins is CJR's correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com. Tags: , ,