You Need More Than A Weather Man to Tell Which Way the Wind Is Blowing

A new poll indicates that a large majority of Americans are linking this year’s unusual weather to global warming. Several weeks ago we were part of a fascinating high level conversation aimed at leveraging this development to deepen support for efforts to combat climate change in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

On the weekend of March 30th, Town Creek grantee Climate Central convened a workshop at the Robert Morris Inn in Oxford to promote more effective use of broadcast weather reports as a platform for educating and informing the public about climate change.

Although it may be tempting to assume that the public views meteorologists with skepticism, they are in fact a consistent and trusted source of important, practical information. They also provide the only consistent contact that many Americans have with science and scientists.

While there has been considerable attention focused on the existence of climate change skepticism and denial within the meteorological community there are a good number of meteorologists who are eager to use their platform to educate and inform the public about the risks and impacts of a changing climate. Doing so carries some measure of professional risk, however, and they are accordingly eager to insure that their scientific messages are as bullet – proof as possible.

In response, Climate Central has developed a program to provide broadcast meteorologists with compelling and scientifically sound climate change content that they can incorporate into their work. This program was piloted in South Carolina, and with our help it is now being deployed in the Chesapeake region.

The March workshop brought together a group of nationally prominent climate scientists with a group of television meteorologists from across the Bay watershed.  The scientists (including Kerry Emmanuel from MIT, Donald Boesch from the University of Maryland, Tony Broccoli from Rutgers University, and Judith Lean from the Naval Research Laboratory) provided primers on climate science, took questions from the meteorologists, and engaged in an open and wide ranging discussion about the challenges and opportunities associated with this work.

The group included a broad range of meteorologists, including big market voices who have asserted leadership as climate change communicators (Bob Ryan from WJLA in Washington D.C.; Glenn “Hurricane” Schwartz, from NBC10 in Philadelphia) as well as meteorologists operating in smaller, more conservative markets (like Marc Adamo and Stephanie Allison from WMDT-TV in Salisbury and Sean Sublette from WSET/ABC13 in Lynchburg VA).

We are enthusiastically supporting this work due to our interest in helping to insure that Maryland meets its greenhouse gas emissions goals. For a number of years Maryland has been a national leader in advancing policies to reduce pollution from power plants and cars, and to promote energy efficiency and renewables. This admirable record of achievement culminated in passage of the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act of 2009, establishing a goal for the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 25% by the year 2020.

Despite these successes, we are nagged by the suspicion that public support for energy efficiency and clean energy is not as broad and deep as it needs to be. We are therefore eager to help strengthen advocates’ capacity for effective climate change communications.

Given the increasing evidence of a link between extreme weather events and climate change   local weather broadcasts constitute a potentially powerful platform for engaging the public on global warming.  We were encouraged by the interactions that we witnessed between the scientists and the meteorologists, and we are hopeful that Climate Central’s intervention will help move the needle on climate change opinion in the Bay watershed.

We must confess to a bit of anxiety, however, about the inclination – on the part of the scientists as well as the meteorologists – to emphasize the importance of depoliticizing climate conversations. We recognize the motivation, of course, but we worry that attempting to depoliticize climate conversations can be a bit like taking a knife to a gunfight.

Professor Daniel Kahan and his colleagues at the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School  have shown how the communication of scientific information tends to get refracted through a cultural lens in a process which leads people to endorse whichever position reinforces their connection to others with whom they share important commitments:

“Like fans at a sporting contest”, they write, ” people deal with evidence selectively to promote their emotional interest in their group. On issues ranging from climate change to gun control, from synthetic biology to counter terrorism, they take their cues about what they should feel, and hence believe, from the cheers and boos of the home crowd”.

To the extent that this is the case it makes the job of communicating climate change science perhaps even more difficult than our climate scientists and meteorologists suspect. If the ideological refraction is always already there, then depoliticizing the discourse may have limited value.

Kahan’s advice is that we are more likely to get a better reception for scientific information if it is presented in a way that reinforces the cultural values and identity commitments of the audience.  In a number of communications experiments Kahan and his colleagues have found that invoking keywords, framing and even visual cues can make all the difference in generating acceptance of scientific information.

(This sort of ideological jiu jitsu  – in which we seek to reverse the ideological charge of the message by cloaking it in comfortably recognizable garb –  is quite familiar in an environmental community that has fallen in love with the mobilization of ‘unusual suspects’ (e.g. farmers, watermen, Republicans, 1%ers) as messengers).

This may be a useful tactic but we have our doubts about its strategic soundness. If climate change is – as it appears to be – the paradigmatic example of the planet rebelling against its political, economic, and ideological operating systems, then we are not going to solve it by agreeing to disagree about politics, economics, and ideology. (Or, worse yet, by pretending that we agree). Our opponents recognize this, and that’s why, in their communications, they seek to stoke the political and ideological fires that Kahan and others would have us douse.

Climate change is a transformational challenge that will ultimately require us to remake – not accommodate –  its political, economic, and  ideological conditions. This does not mean that climate scientists and meteorologists need to pick up ideological arms.

But it does mean that someone has to.