The author, Jeff Berardelli, has more than 22 years’ experience as a broadcast meteorologist. He recently left his job as the main meteorologist in West Palm Beach to pursue a climate and society master’s degree at Columbia University. He continues in broadcasting as a climate change contributor for CBS News and part-time television meteorologist in New York.
Climate change is the most important issue facing mankind. It is a challenge so colossal that it will affect every living creature on Earth. Unchecked, it will destabilize the entire world order, bringing hardship to many.
I firmly believe that, when we look back, 2015 to 2018 will be viewed as the turning-point years — the years when climate change “got real.” Action to confront the problem has been frustratingly slow, but it doesn’t have to be this way. We know what’s causing it. We know how to fix it. All that’s missing is a critical mass of public willpower to accelerate solutions. To achieve that, we need to talk about climate change. A lot.
And I know just the right profession to lead this charge: broadcast meteorologists. For many people, we are the only scientist seen on a consistent basis. We are a trusted local source of information, with an influence that few, if any, others have.
Serving our local communities is a privilege that comes with great power and responsibility. But I hesitate to use the word “responsibility” when it comes to climate change communication, because it implies obligation. This decision of whether to engage on climate should be a personal choice, not a mandate.
I prefer to think about climate change communication as a great opportunity for meteorologists to make a substantial positive effect on our world and expand the way we connect with our viewers. Engaging in climate communication offers added importance to our careers, a divergence from formulaic forecasts.
For some, like me, the motivation stems from where we can best live a fulfilled, purpose-driven life — a life in which we are part of a bigger effort to help society. For others, it is an opportunity to differentiate from other local broadcasters in the market by connecting with viewers through science communication.
A couple of months ago, I started a new journey, plunging face forward into the climate challenge. I quit my job as the main meteorologist in West Palm Beach, left my salary and stability behind, and enrolled in the climate and society master’s program at Columbia University.
It simply felt like the right thing to do at a time when the world seems to be moving in the wrong direction. The climate challenge is a place where my knowledge, experience, passions and platform all intersect. It’s the place I can best make a difference. And that’s just as true for many broadcast meteorologists across this great nation of ours.
Local communities are where some of the biggest climate communication challenges exist and where local experts are afforded the greatest opportunities to make a difference. Meteorologists are sewn into the unique cultural fabric of our cities and towns. We understand our people. Our people understand us. It’s us and only us, with our background in science, our communication charisma and our trusted local voice that can bridge the gap between science and society.
At a time when mobile apps are seizing market share, connecting the dots between climate change and your local forecast is an opportunity to get away from common, data-driven predictions by adding your own expert perspective. In this age of quantity over quality, climate communication adds substance, helping raise the bar in local news broadcasting.
As broadcast professionals, we know the best communication is a conversation, a two-way street, in which we meet our viewers where they are. Be honest, level with your viewers and stay far from politics. When viewers have questions or objections but are genuinely open to our expertise, engage them. Be respectful and responsive.
I’m not naive to the concerns meteorologists face. This foray can be filled with frustration, especially when science is met with objection. Those voices, however, are only a small portion of our audience.
The 2018 climate change opinion report Climate Change in the American Mind, conducted by Yale and George Mason universities, found that 9 percent of Americans are “dismissive” of climate change. The number feels much larger, doesn’t it? That’s because those who are dismissive are generally loud and relentless.
In some communities, the percentage of people who question our changing climate is admittedly larger. And this is where our expertise in both the local community and communication make us uniquely qualified to take the lead.
When someone is dismissive of the science, my advice is to be polite but move on. As you probably surmised, dismissal is often traced not to science but to the emotions associated with climate change coming into conflict with one’s livelihood, life philosophy, social identity or a distaste of objectionable climate solutions. Thus, any science-based argument is bound to fail.
Look for opportunities outside of your weathercast — such as breakout segments or, especially, digital and social media — to inform your viewers on this issue. This is where meteorologists, particularly those who are behind the scenes during the week, can really shine.
As the consequences of the climate challenge mount, we find ourselves presented with this remarkable opportunity, a chance to use our unique skill set of science, communication and trust to be an integral ingredient in the solution to this greatest of human obstacles. We are a credible scientific source that can clear a path through confusion and help our viewers emerge at the clarity of scientific truth.
So in this new year, I ask that you join us in making 2019 the year that TV meteorologists “got real” about the most important issue facing humankind.
Below, I share motivations and perspectives on climate change communications from various broadcast meteorologists who have shown bold leadership on this issue. #MetsUnite
Talking about climate change: 17 broadcast meteorologists share views and lessons learned
Mike Nelson, ABC7 Denver: “As ‘station scientists,’ the TV meteorologist is as close to a scientist as most Americans get, and we are invited into our viewers living rooms. This provides us with both an opportunity and a responsibility to talk about climate change. We are often asked to provide background on earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, meteors, etc. — why would we shy away from the most important issue facing humankind?”
Don Paul, Buffalo: “The accelerating impacts from the warming injected more urgency in my thinking into avoiding a theoretical tipping point by which even a best-case scenario will have major negative impacts. It’s now apparent we are approaching a stage at which the best case becomes elusive and the more drastic scenarios become more likely and draw closer. Late in my career, I came to realize we are running out of time.”
David Yeomans, KXAN, Austin: “The majority of viewers hear more from politicians and officials in the daily news cycle than from scientists. That can have the unfortunate effect of making the climate change issue appear to have two balanced sides, when in reality, there is no debate in the scientific arena. TV meteorologists are oftentimes the only scientist that the average person hears from on a regular basis, so it’s important that I use my role to convey the facts behind the issue."
Cassie Wilson, KRNV, Reno, Nev.: “I feel like I’m finally doing my civic duty, educating our community on climate change and what it means moving forward.” (Wilson was deep in academia pursuing her PhD in climate policy when she realized that television news is where she wanted to be so that she could bridge the gap between climate change science and society.)
Ari Sarsalari, the Weather Company, Atlanta: “I think it’s really important to not be condescending. We need to stop using terms like ‘denier.’ It’s childish name-calling, and we need to stop acting like children if we want to actually educate people. This is the biggest mistake being made in climate change communication nowadays, and until we fix it, we are not going to be able to educate anyone — we will continue to alienate people.”
Carl Parker, the Weather Channel, Atlanta: “Over and over, we hear some version of: ‘I’ve lived here all my life, and it’s never been like this’. So, I think many are becoming aware, even intuitively, that the weather is getting worse, and that’s where we can connect the dots.” (Parker is pursuing a master’s degree in climate change from North Carolina State University.)
Dan Satterfield, WBOC, Salisbury, Md.: “We understand scientific method and that science is not opinion but based on tangible evidence. The public is terribly confused about climate change, and it’s nearly impossible for them to go online and find accurate, nonpoliticized info on it. We are the ones that can make a difference.” (Satterfield runs a successful climate blog.)
Amber Sullins, ABC15, Phoenix: “I think it’s critical for people to understand what’s happening right now with our weather and climate. My goal is to break it down for them so they can easily understand the science and show them why it matters and how it impacts their lives. No matter where that conversation leads, I always try to speak the truth in love. My mantra has become: ‘Be kind, speak truth, love others, show grace, work hard, and be grateful.’"
Eric Sorensen, WQAD, Moline, Ill.: “For every eight positive comments [I make about climate change], I get one to two negative ones. We don’t devolve into bickering. I have come to the conclusion that I can’t hold up my train at the station because one person doesn’t want to jump on. Talking about climate change used to be taboo. Now, being the authority on climate change in your market will make you the leader when natural disasters come home and people are looking for answers.”
John Morales, NBC Miami: “I was one of the first broadcast meteorologists to speak up on global warming. That in itself took a dose of aggressiveness — some chutzpah, if you will — particularly since I did it without permission and hoping not to have to ask for forgiveness. And I haven’t had to. Instead, I get nothing but compliments from folks I meet on the street. Many of them ask why [I] am . . . the only one talking about climate change in Miami.” (Morales is pursuing a master’s degree in energy policy and climate from Johns Hopkins University.)
Paul Gross, WDIV, Detroit: “This has become the No. 1 topic people ask about when recognizing me in a store or restaurant. And what I have learned is that there is a tremendous appetite for this type of unbiased reporting. Every lecture I give on the subject normally results in one or two invitations to give the lecture to other groups.” (Gross has been talking about climate change since the early 1990s.)
Doug Kammerer, NBC4, Washington, D.C.: “I do feel that it is our job to communicate the science to the general public. The advice I would give would be to talk about climate change on a larger scale. Do not use daily weather events as an excuse to talk about climate change. Talk about the bigger picture, such as the monthly or seasonal reports on worldwide climate.”
Brad Panovich, WCNC, Charlotte: “When you have two to three minutes tops for a TV weathercast, you can never do justice to a subject as complex or as important as climate change. On social media, blogs and Web, we have golden opportunities to talk about this without the limitations of a TV newscast. My New Year’s resolution is to start a local weather and climate podcast, which will give me bigger opportunities to talk about how climate change is affecting our local community.”
Steve Lapointe, WRGB, Albany, N.Y.: “Start small, do a little bit here and there, subtly work climate change topics into weather segments, relating something that happening locally to what’s going on globally. Try to make small connections with your audience that make them think, make their own observations, helping them learn. Don’t be over the top with it. In other words, don’t force climate change down people’s throats.”
Elisa Raffa, KOLR10, Springfield, Mo.: “I rarely, if ever, get pushback on my climate stories. Why? I tell stories that impact them. There are faces in my stories that say, ‘I’ve had this problem, and it’s because of climate change.’ It is closer to home and easier to understand than global temperatures, steering my viewers away from the political tensions of climate change.”
Brad Carl, Fox 23, Tulsa: “I think more people are open to hearing about the science in Oklahoma and why we’re concerned, especially when we focus on local impacts at home in landlocked Oklahoma vs. what’s more out of sight and out of mind in the coastal areas and elsewhere in the world. I think talking about it and getting it out in the open to discuss makes it less of an off-limit or hostile topic for our audience.”
Shel Winkley, KBTX, Bryan, Tex.: “You cannot stand steadfast on your convictions and take on a ‘I’m right, your wrong, and here is why’ approach. Present the information and then allow that to open a dialogue with those that share a different point of view. In the end, there may not be total agreement, but there is a respect, which is at least a starting point.”