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On Climate Change, Weathercasters May Be Misguiding Their Viewers

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If you are like most Americans, the weather forecast on tonight's evening news may be your only exposure to science all day. And there's a good chance that your trusted local weathercaster is your only regular source of information on climate change.

This seeming monopoly on the public's exposure to a critical issue has consequences, according to environmental advocates. Recent studies have found that more than half of the reporters relaying weather on television do not believe humans are the primary drivers of global warming -- despite a consensus among scientists who specialize on the topic.

"If you look at the stats over the past five or six years, the public's belief that global warming is a serious problem, or is even happening, is declining," said Daniel Souweine, co-founder of the nonprofit Citizen Engagement Lab. In fact, nearly 40 percent of Americans are not convinced that the earth is heating up, according to the latest Pew Research Center poll.

"We think that's a result of the fact that they're not getting the right kind of information about what the science says," Souweine told The Huffington Post.

A new campaign called "Forecast the Facts," begun by Citizen Engagement Lab with the support of the League of Conservation Voters and the climate advocacy group 350.org, aims to call out on-air climate deniers. Many of these base their skepticism on their own inability to forecast more than five or seven days out. If they can't forecast the weather a week from now, how then, the deniers argue, could scientists try to tell us what the climate might be like in 70 years?

"That's a statement that on first blush sounds reasonable. But when you understand the differences between the science of climate and weather, it isn't," Souweine said. As many climate experts like to say, weather tells you what to wear that day and climate tells you what wardrobe to buy. And computer models used by the two professions differ significantly.

So far, Forecast the Facts has identified 55 outspoken and skeptical meteorologists. Among them is John Coleman of KUSI-TV in San Diego. He is quoted on the website: "We're talking about the greatest hoax in history, let's understand this. There is no man made global warming. The whole thing is a phony call for quick action."

Kris Wilson of the University of Texas at Austin, a co-author of the national weathercaster survey, applauded the new campaign for recognizing the important role that weathercasters can play in climate change communication. However, he also expressed concern that the approach may end up simply "stabbing at the hornet's nest and making things worse."

Wilson's research has found that skeptical weathercasters tend to trust their peers more than other sources. "This might just build them into a stronger community," he said.

Other experts also call the effort misguided. Bud Ward, editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, suggested that the Forecast the Facts approach could "turn off a wider sweep of the broadcast meteorologist community."

Ward hosts educational workshops for meteorologists and has contributed climate materials to the National Environmental Education Foundation's outreach, which includes online course modules and email newsletters to a self-selected group of over 200 broadcast meteorologists.

These approaches rest on the notion that the platform and respect held by weathercasters can be used for good. Dan Satterfield, a meteorologist and blogger for American Geophysical Union, shares this idea. He belongs to a growing list of broadcast weather personalities looking beyond local seven-day forecasts to long-term global climate trends -- making the effort to learn the difference and then pass that knowledge on to their viewers.

Meteorologists have a "huge responsibility" to get the science right and not mislead, said Satterfield. "What I say on the air, or in my blog, or on Facebook -- it's good science."

"If you go on TV and say something you heard on talk radio or Fox News from someone who has never published a paper, you're gonna get called out. You're gonna look foolish," Satterfield continued. Before Forecast the Facts, such calling-out of the local weather guy usually had to come from a local scientist's letter to editor, he added.

Satterfield frequently gets questions from his viewers and Facebook followers about how various weather episodes, including the rise in extreme events, might be linked to climate change. The latest in his inbox: What is causing this mild winter?

"The average person wants to assign one reason," he said. "But it's more than one thing. The answer is La Niña, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, the fact that the planet and oceans are warmer, that we've lost one third of Arctic sea ice," Satterfield said. Given the obvious changes to the atmosphere, he added, it would be "silly" to think that "any weather event was not affected by climate change." It's only the extent of that effect that remains to be seen.

The secret to Satterfield's education of his viewers, including some now-former deniers, is limiting his comments to the science: "I never talk about what to do about the problem."

But not all meteorologists are as open to learning about climate science, suggested Souweine. "There are some that even go on air and say that the globe is cooling," he said. "At that point, there's no time for dialogue, it's time for accountability. The viewers deserve to know the truth."

Silence on the topic of climate change also concerns Souweine. This information deadzone spreads from the TV screen to the classroom, with high school science teachers avoiding addressing the issue out of fear of backlash, as HuffPost highlighted last week.

"Reporting on a record heat wave and not talking about climate change is like talking about a string of murders and not saying there is a suspect in custody," Souweine said.

Last week, Souweine attended a council meeting at the American Meteorological Society's annual conference in New Orleans. On the agenda: drafting a new statement on climate change. While the AMS had previously published a statement acknowledging humans' role in climate change, they had been called on to issue an updated, more strongly worded version.

On Friday, after the conference, Souweine sent an email to the more than 13,000 supporters who have signed on since the site's launch earlier this month. "Before we arrived, deniers in the AMS were the only ones making their demands known," he wrote. "AMS senior leadership actually read our press release aloud and said the grassroots participation 'changed the context' for the entire discussion."

The council eventually voted to delay finalization of any updated statement.

Meanwhile, last week in Portland, Ore., the state's chapter of the AMS gave three skeptics the stage at another conference.

The battle continues. Despite his reservations on the campaign's approach, Wilson of the University of Texas at Austin said that he did agree with the Forecast the Facts statement: "The weather report never mattered so much."

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