Jim Cantore, an on-camera meteorologist for The Weather Channel, reports on Hurricane Irene.Photo: Jonathan Saruk (Getty Images)
On local TV stations around the country, an increasing number of weathercasters have been covering the consequences the climate crisis will have for their cities and towns (maybe they’ve been reading Gizmodo).
But there hasn’t been a lot of research done on whether it’s actually making a difference in how viewers understand the crisis—until now. A new study published by the American Meteorological Society this week examined how viewers responses to local climate TV news reports differ from their reactions to traditional weather reports. And it turns out local climate reporting matters.
The authors recruited people online in Miami and Chicago to take part in the study, and asked them a long list of questions about their understanding of the climate crisis. Then, they showed those participants a set of three videos, each one or two minutes in length and each featuring a TV weather reporter. One group was shown standard weather reports. The other was shown three local climate reports that included information on local impacts and how they could become worse unless the world addresses climate change. All of the videos were produced with the Climate Matters program, a local climate reporting initiative founded in 2010.
After the participants watched the videos, the researchers assessed their reactions. It turns out even just a little bit of exposure to reporting on local climate impacts can really shape someone’s view of the climate crisis. According to the new paper, viewers who saw the climate reports were “significantly more likely to 1) understand that climate change is happening, is human-caused, and is causing harm in their community; 2) feel that climate change is personally relevant and express greater concern about it; and 3) feel that they understand how climate change works and express greater interest in learning more about it.”
Ed Maibach, the director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University who led the study, said in an email that he found the results surprising. “To me, the surprising finding is how much six minutes of localized climate education from a locally trusted source influenced people’s understand of global climate change as a locally relevant problem,” he said. “People learned a lot in six minutes!”
He and his co-authors found that these results held true for both liberal-leaning and conservative participants. That shows a way forward for communicating the urgency of acting on climate change because, Maibach noted, “some approaches to climate education have been shown to reinforce the climate skepticism held by many conservative Americans.”
John Morales, the chief meteorologist at Miami’s NBC affiliate, hosted all of the videos shown to participants in Miami. His climate reports focused on how the climate crisis is exacerbating record heat, flooding, and other extreme weather events in the city. Morales has been incorporating the science of climate change into his weather reporting for over a decade to show it’s a local problem.
“It’s important context,” Morales, who also co-authored the study, said. “So when extreme weather events [took place], I would frequently on air state that … we might see more of that in the future, or I would say, you shouldn’t be surprised that this is happening given given what’s been forecasted by climate models.”
The study shows he’s been doing it all for good reason.