05/07/2014 06:17 pm ET Updated May 07, 2014

The White House Calls In Al Roker For An Assist On Climate Change


WASHINGTON -- A new climate report is out, and you better call Al.

Al Roker, that is. Not the other Al.

When it comes to a celebrity messenger, you don't get much more beloved -- and noncontroversial -- than Al Roker. The veteran "Today Show" weatherman, along with television meteorologists from around the country, met with President Barack Obama in the Rose Garden on Tuesday morning as part of the administration's latest push on climate change. The gathering coincided with the release of the new National Climate Assessment, an 800-plus-page tome documenting climate impacts in the U.S.

With its communication plan for the latest report, the administration aims to bypass Congress and Washington politics in general, and appeal directly to the American public in their homes.

Roker's interview with Obama about the climate report ran on "Today" Wednesday morning. In it, Roker asked the president why it has "taken so long to get to this point where you're sounding this urgency" on climate change.

"Well, I tell you," Obama responded, "we've been sounding this urgency for the last five years. You've seen some resistance from Congress. Part of the reason for putting forward this assessment -- which involved hundreds of people, experts, businesses, not-for-profits and local communities sharing their experience -- is we want to emphasize to the public this is not some distant problem of the future. This is a problem that is affecting Americans right now."

A 1990 law requires regular updates on the state of climate science, and the new report is just the latest iteration of those. But its release was much different than that of the 2009 version, which received far less fanfare.

"So many scientists involved in the 2009 report felt like there was so much important information in that report, and it just landed on people's desks with a thud," recalled Heidi Cullen, the chief climatologist for the nonprofit news site Climate Central. "No one got to see the important information in it."

The earlier report came just as the Obama administration was making a push for a cap-and-trade bill in Congress that would have cut planet-warming emissions. But most people never heard anything about that. "It was such an inside-the-Beltway exercise and a lot of Americans were like, 'What are we really talking about here?'" said Cullen.

The outreach to meteorologists now could help depoliticize the issue. For many people, the TV weatherperson is the only scientist they see on a regular basis. "Most Americans cannot name any climate scientists, but they know who gives them their local weather forecast," said Cullen, whose work includes outreach and education on climate for meteorologists.

"Weathercasters are in a great position to educate the public about climate change," said Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, via email. "They are trusted, they have access to the public, they are great communicators, their focus is local, which is what people care about most, and they are non-political."

He also praised the administration's strategy with the new report. "The White House is wise to be finding new ways to get this information out of the gridlock of Washington, and into the hands of all Americans," said Maibach.

The report focuses on climate-related impacts that are already being felt around the country, which advocates of action on climate change hope will also help cut through the Washington stagnation on the issue. "It's much harder to have a partisan opinion about a flooded street than it is to have a partisan opinion about a cap-and-trade bill," said Aaron Huertas, the science communications officer at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The handling of the latest assessment involves not just outreach to meteorologists, but an interactive website that allows users to view the report by issue, region and response strategies. "Who says we can't build a great website at the White House?" joked White House senior counselor John Podesta at a launch event for the report Tuesday afternoon.

At that event, John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, called on the audience -- who included academics, local government officials and representatives of environmental and health groups -- to "disseminate and communicate the findings."

Kathryn Sullivan, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the audience that releasing the report gets it only "as far as the loading dock."

"It hasn't been delivered. The challenge now is to take this information off the page and actually communicate it, actually connect it, make sure it gets put in action," Sullivan said.



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