It looked to me like every hand in the room was raised. The question I asked to start our Society of Environmental Journalists panel on climate change and extreme weather was: “Have you experienced an extreme weather event in the community where you report, in the past year?”
Climate change is a global threat. Yet it is also hyperlocal. In communities across the country, the effects of climate change are tangible, personal and persuasive in ways that trump politics.
We all recognize that extreme weather events have become both more common and more severe. This increasing, and increasingly obvious, threat to communities also creates an opportunity to make the connection to climate change.
That’s where environmental journalists have what might be surprising allies: their local TV meteorologists. A recent survey by the climate teams at Yale and George Mason University examined “trusted messengers” of climate information across the political divide. The study found that only two information sources were trusted across the spectrum: NASA and TV meteorologists.
As extreme weather events become more frequent and more severe, local TV meteorologists are uniquely qualified to make the connection to climate change. In addition to audience trust, they have large audience reach, especially during extreme weather events when viewers flock to their local TV news stations. Meteorologists are also essentially the “chief science officers” of the newsroom, usually the only people with advanced science degrees, and they have the visual storytelling skills — and the broadcast graphics tools — to communicate this connection clearly.
New tools also enable both meteorologists and others reporting on climate to make science-based attributions between weather changes and the underlying influence of climate change.
Climate Central, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization focused on supporting journalists with resources, data and analysis, recently released the Climate Shift Index, a tool that enables meteorologists and reporters to make direct attributions between weather anomalies and climate. Climate Central meteorologist Lauren Casey explained that this tool now enables journalists to make direct attribution, for example, that a particular heat wave was “x times more likely” because of climate change. Here’s an explanation of the science behind the tool.
The close relationships local TV meteorologists have with their audiences give them a unique opportunity to have these conversations about climate change without triggering partisan divides. Nelly Carreña, chief meteorologist for Univision-Dallas, put this idea to the test with her viewers. In just one week, she was able to get more than 500 of her viewers to complete a survey on climate change.
People might think of Texas as a “red” state, noted Carreña, but her viewers overwhelmingly agreed climate change was real, human-caused, and getting worse. A large majority said they’d been personally affected. And perhaps most significantly, a whopping 97% said they wanted Carreña to talk more about climate change in her weather segments. She even received 200-plus responses to an open-ended question asking for types of coverage that interested them, with solutions earning the most votes.
Carreña’s experience is supported by the data. The Yale Climate Opinion Maps show, down to the county level for each county in the United States, Americans’ beliefs on climate change and their views on different climate responses.
Encouraged by both viewer feedback and this research, and equipped with attribution tools like the Climate Shift Index, TV meteorologists and reporters are leading the way in making more direct connections for local audiences between increasingly common and severe weather events and their climate change “fingerprint.”
Chase Cain, climate editor and reporter for NBCLX, said he was initially nervous about making such a strong connection. But based on the science, new attribution tools, and feedback from his audiences, he now sees it as his responsibility. Here’s an example of how he reported on yet another of California’s wildfires.
There’s an old saying in newsrooms: “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Local newsrooms’ metrics prove that extreme weather events drive audience engagement. These weather events are, unfortunately, more common and more extreme. But they also represent an opportunity for those on the front lines of local reporting to make direct, scientifically supported attribution to climate change, helping their audiences better understand the connection between this planet-sized problem and its local effects.
Frank Mungeam is director of the Local Media Association Covering Climate Collaborative, which provides editorial support, training and science tools to more than 35 leading local newsrooms across the country committed to humanizing and localizing the effects of climate change, and inclusively reporting on both the problem and effective responses. We welcome local newsrooms committed to covering human-caused climate change and its solutions. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for information.