5.4 Preparedness of Broadcast Meteorologists for Climate Change Reporting

Friday, 12 June 2015: 11:15 AM
304 (Raleigh Convention Center)
Lisa A. Doner, Plymouth State University, Plymouth, NH; and P. T. Davis, M. A. McGarry, M. M. Perello, E. P. Kelsey, D. W. Szymanski, H. Meldrum, and E. A. Oches

Broadcast meteorologists who also serve as science correspondents for news stations are well positioned to communicate climate science to the public. However, recent studies indicate that meteorologists lag earth system scientists by 9-18% in accepting the idea of anthropogenic forcing on climate change (Doran and Zimmerman 2009; Maibach et al. 2014). This gap broadens to 30% for broadcast meteorologists (Maibach et al. 2011; Wilson 2012). Since 70% of Americans watch televised local news primarily to see the weather forecast (Miller et al. 2006; PEW 2011) and the public largely believes that meteorologists are climate science experts (Leiserowitz et al. 2011), the prospective reach of broadcast meteorologists as disseminators of climate knowledge is enormous. But, when climate information is not included in weather reports, the public inference must be that the information is not relevant or important. By abstaining from disseminating climate science findings, broadcast meteorologists indirectly encourage public skepticism about climate change. But are broadcast meteorologists adequately prepared and willing to be climate communicators?

With help from an award by NSF's Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program (DRL-1222752), we developed multiple working null hypotheses to explain apparent climate reporting reticence: 1. A majority of U.S. meteorology degree programs fail to provide a sufficient number of courses specifically on climate change that address salient aspects of the mechanisms for change. 2. Meteorology students, who typically earn STEM-rigorous B.S. degrees, graduate with an inadequate level of climate literacy. 3. Most broadcast meteorologists have degrees in broadcast journalism with limited backgrounds in meteorology or climate science.

To test these hypotheses, we conducted a survey of the educational preparation of broadcast meteorologists in the Northeastern US. We also surveyed climate science literacy in first year and graduating meteorology students nationally using U.S. Global Change Research Program standards (USGCRP 2009). Finally, we tested the idea that training by a professional climatologist could help overcome barriers to climate communication by meteorologists.

We find that, of 137 broadcast meteorologists at 36 TV and radio stations in New England and eastern New York, 93 (68%) have (at least) an undergraduate degree in meteorology or atmospheric science and 16 others have meteorology degrees or certificates from Mississippi State University's 12-month on-campus program. Another 16 (~12%) have graduate degrees in meteorology or atmospheric science. Only 20 (~15%) have their primary undergraduate degrees in another discipline, such as broadcast journalism. Thus, the null hypothesis that lack of academic training in meteorology is an explaining factor does not hold, at least for broadcast meteorologists in the New England region. This finding agrees with a survey of broadcast meteorologists by Maibach et al. (2011).

We test climate science literacy outcomes of meteorology degree programs, soliciting surveys from 72 U.S. undergraduate meteorology degree-granting programs. We obtained usable responses from 10 schools (~14%), including 61 first-year and 78 senior students. The survey uses Likert scale responses to statements that are based on national standards for climate literacy (USGCRP 2009). Students show highest literacy for general science, such as scientific method and peer review (>80%), and significantly less for climate related topics (all <75%). Given their training in atmospheric models for weather prediction the students have surprising deficiencies in model predictions of climate change (68%), and in general knowledge of climate models (66.7%). The greatest learning gaps occur for specifics of climate science, such as spatio-temporal scales of climate change (49-54%), the role of CO2 in ocean acidification (55%), and consequences for human health (49%), biodiversity (57-60%), and the role of aerosols in cooling the climate (54%). Over 85% of all respondents indicated that they felt no concern about climate change and its impacts. In 2010, the American Meteorological Society made curriculum recommendations to improve coverage of climate topics; it seems that these measures are, thus far, inadequate, a finding supported by recent surveys by Maibach et al. (2011) and Stenhouse et al. (2014).

In a climate communication workshop (2014 NE Storm Conference), we test the utility of focused climate training to improve preparedness of meteorology students and professionals to report on climate topics. Participants self-assessed their comfort level in communicating various climate topics to the public, before and after a presentation by climate researcher and educator Raymond S Bradley, U. Mass-Amherst. Over 50% of the participants indicate increased sense of preparedness following the workshop (n=83). Greatest areas of self-assessed weakness (scale 1-10, with 1 low) were ocean acidification (ave. 3.3), sources and uses of proxy climate data (ave. 3.4), and ocean temperature trends (ave. 4.7).

Overall, our findings suggest that specialized training by climate specialists might enable broadcast meteorologists to engage more in climate science communication to the public. Climate science training by meteorology educators results in climate literacy deficits, especially for consequences of climate change on the natural world and human health.

Doran, P.T. and Zimmerman, M.K. 2009: Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change, Eos Trans. AGU, 90(3), 22–23.

Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C. and Smith, N. 2011: Global Warming's Six Americas, May 2011. Yale University and George Mason University, New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, 57 pp.

Maibach, E., Cobb, S., Leiserowitz, A., Peters, E., Schweizer, V., Mandryk, C., Witte, J., et al. 2011: A national survey of television meteorologists about climate change: education. George Mason University. Fairfax, VA: Center for Climate Change Communication.

Miller, J. D., Augenbraun, E., Schulhof, J. and Kimmel, L.D. 2006: Adult science learning from local television newscasts. Science Communication, 28, 216-242.

PEW Research Center 2011: Modest rise in number saying there is “solid evidence” of global warming, December 1, 2011. http://www.people-press.org/2011/12/01/modest-rise-in-number-saying-there-is-solid-evidence-of-global-warming/

Stenhouse, N., Maibach, E., Cobb, S., Ban, R., Bleistein, A., Croft, P., Bierly, E., Seitter, K., Rasmussen, G. and Leiserowitz, A. 2014: Meteorologists' Views About Global Warming: A Survey of American Meteorological Society Professional Members. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 95, 1029–1040.

U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) 2009: Climate literacy: The essential principles of climate science. http://www.globalchange.gov/browse/reports/climate-literacy-essential-principles-climate-science-high-resolution-booklet.

Wilson, K.M. 2012: Ideology trumps meteorology: Why many television weathercasters remain unconvinced of human-caused global warming. Electronic News, 6(4), 208-228.

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