Cloudy, With A Chance Of Climate Change? TV Meteorologists Take On The Big Stuff

Jul 16, 2018

Four U.S. Senators are objecting to a program that teaches TV weathercasters about the science of climate change. As the Mountain West region deals with record high temperatures, that’s left meteorologists here figuring out how to report on the science of the weather.   

Mike Nelson adjusted his earpiece and lapel mic and strode onto a small black stage in front of a bright green screen.

Denver meteorologist, Mike Nelson, doing his weathercast
Credit Ali Budner / 91.5 KRCC

He spoke to the cameras as he pointed to footage of smoke from a wildfire in western Colorado.  And then the backdrop changed to a chart with a red background and the words “More hot summer days” at the top. It showed in a graph that on average over the last 50 years temperatures keep going up.

He connected the dots between the wildfire and more hot days in our region.

Nelson has been in the weather business for four decades and is chief meteorologist at this Denver Colorado station. He’s part of a growing trend in TV: putting daily weather forecasts in the context of global warming.  The graphic he just used was from a nonprofit group called Climate Central.

Nelson said he could draw a graphic like that himself, “but you’re busy. You got a lot of stuff going on,” he said. “It’s great when you can go to their library, find something that you just drop in.”

Climate Central also holds regular workshops and webinars to train TV weathercasters, like Nelson, in the science of climate change and in the art of communicating about it.

Bernadette Woods Placky directs Climate Central’s broadcaster training program called Climate Matters.

She said they give TV weathercasters the data and scientific information on how climate change is impacting their specific communities.

Since 2012, she said, their network has grown from 30 broadcasters to more than 500. That’s nearly a quarter of the total number of TV weathercasters in the country.

“What I have learned in my career,” said Woods Placky, a veteran TV meteorologist, “is that we are informing our public about what’s going to happen to them. We are preparing them.”

But there’s a different take out there on what Climate Matters is up to. In a recent joint letter, Republican U.S. Senators Rand Paul, James Inhofe, Ted Cruz and James Lankford argued that the non-profit is engaging in partisan activity or “climate-action-oriented opinion” and shouldn’t get federal funding because of it.

Inhofe is a well-known climate change skeptic.  Several years ago he famously stood on the Senate floor and tossed a snowball he’d taken from outside toward the Senate President. Before he tossed it, he said, “it’s very very cold out.”

Inhofe and the other senators are calling on the National Science Foundation’s Inspector General to open an investigation. They’re arguing that the NSF grant that helps fund Climate Matters violates the Hatch Act which prohibits federal employees from getting involved in political activities.  

None of the four senators were available for comment, except to say that their letter speaks for itself.

But Woods Placky doesn’t buy it. “Science is science is science,” she said. “The scientific evidence of climate change is not political.”

97% or more of the world’s scientists agreed, as does The American Meteorological Society.

Temperature data from four international science institutions. All show rapid warming in the past few decades and that the last decade has been the warmest on record. Data sources: NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, NOAA National Climatic Data Center, Met Office Hadley Centre/Climatic Research Unit and the Japanese Meteorological Agency. https://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/
Credit NASA

“It’s like we don’t deny the science of how a rocket is launched,” said Mike Nelson, the chief meteorologist for the Denver TV station. “The science is that every molecule of carbon dioxide acts like a feather in a down comforter and is warming up the planet. Physics doesn’t care about the politics.”

Still, he knows there is a political war raging over the words “climate change” and what they represent.  So it’s a fine line.  One that Nelson said he has no trouble walking.  But he said his 40 years in the business gives him some cover.

But, Nelson acknowledged, “if you're a 30-year-old weathercaster with a couple little kids and you've been in the market for two years, you're like jeez, I better back off. I got to keep my job.”

Justin Roth, a 28-year-old-TV-meteorologist at a local station in Casper, Wyoming, said it is a fine line he has to walk, especially for someone so new in his field.  

He said he recently reported a news story about wildfires in Wyoming and how they may be getting worse.

Wyoming meteorologist, Justin Roth, wearing his "warming stripes" tie, to symbolize global warming
Credit Justin Roth

“That got certainly some pushback,” Roth said. “People basically saying, ‘Oh you can’t predict the weather in the next week. How are you going to predict the weather in 20 years?’”

Roth said he occasionally checks the Climate Matters website so he can keep up professionally with the science on global warming. But he added, “I’m not going to go out of my way to talk about climate change on air here in Wyoming than maybe I would in another part of the country just because of the conservative mindset of this audience.”

That’s something Denver meteorologist, Mike Nelson, wants to help his colleagues figure out.  Because he believes this is a solvable crisis. 

“We can do this,” he said. “But you don’t solve very many problems without admitting you have one.”

The National Science Foundation’s Inspector General said they will be assessing the issues the senators raised in their letter this fall.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.