“Say It!”: Why TV Weather Forecasters Can No Longer Avoid Climate Change (Guest Column)

“Lemme explain your viewers to you,” The News Consultant said with supreme self-confidence, and everyone on the news team leaned in.

He was GQ-chic, in from the Big City, and dominating the small conference room decorated with posters of ABC’s 1991 primetime lineup. The window between Roseanne Barr and ALF looked out onto bleak sky broken only by the antenna of the tiny TV station we were sitting in and, across the highway, the meatpacking plant where Spam is made.

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This was Austin, Minnesota, and I was giddy to be making $12,200 a year as a real-life general assignment reporter and weekend sports anchor in the 152nd-largest television market in America. And I was champing at the bit to cover space-heater fires and 6-on-6 Iowa girls’ basketball tournaments and deer-hunting accidents with tips we were about to learn from The News Consultant.

“Check out what they’re doing in Miami,” he said, throwing in a mashup tape of the best reporters and most popular anchors of every market in the nation — a riveting, pre-internet novelty. “They take their live camera off the tripod and walk around to add urgency to the same old crime story. It’s news, but vérité,” he said, and we wrote this down to look up later.

Then he turned to a big pad of paper on an easel, picked up a marker and drew a dot. “Here’s your viewer, and here’s what he cares most about,” he said, circling the dot.

“Is my home safe?”

He turned back to the pad and drew another circle around the first. “Is my neighborhood safe?” “Is my city safe? My state? My country?” he continued concentrically before tapping the outer ring on his Dartboard of Doom.

“Waaaaay out here, maybe your viewer has enough time left to care about what’s happening in the Middle East or the ozone layer. But what is going to get their attention at 5, 6 and 10 is local crime, local punishment, local weather.” He tapped the center. “Local.”

Over the next 30 years, in stations and networks great and small, I lost count of all the times The News Consultant was proven to be full of shit.

The most jarring example came on 9/11, when my lulled generation learned the hard way that stuff “waaaaay over in the Middle East” can rattle Middle American towns and become local news in an instant. Financial crashes, pandemics and the rise of populism also make a hyperlocal Dartboard of Doom worthless, but no global story has more local implications than an overheating planet being destroyed by a trillion-ton Carbon Godzilla that is growing at 40 billion metric tons a year.

When my preschooler reaches my age, science predicts that the average American city will feel like it has moved more than 500 miles south, and our Brooklyn neighborhood will have the heat and humidity of Jonesboro, Arkansas. Anchorage will be warmer by 24°F and almost 360 percent wetter. A hotter, drier Tucson would match Mexican towns in the Sonoran Desert, and Jacksonville, Florida, will feel like the northern border of Belize.

This will rearrange everything: insurance rates, property values, building codes, growing seasons, supply chains, immigrant streams and cultural identities — which means there is a bottomless well of story ideas for every local newsroom in North America to help their viewers survive and thrive.

But even as the summer of ‘23 went down as the hottest since the birth of Christ and the nation suffered nearly 42 billion-dollar disasters in just the past 18 months, it is still a radical novelty to hear your local newscasters connect these facts with the unnatural disaster in their backyard.

“Say it!” I yell at too many live shots amid wreckage. “If you can’t say the words ‘climate change’ when you are standing in it, I know people who can!”

But at the same time, I empathize. I’ve sat mute on plenty of news sets where it was easier to chuckle, “Hot enough for ya?” in the toss to weather than, “You know, Stormy, some of today’s heat wave is brought to you by our friends at Chevron.”

Local anchors get enough grief from rude viewers about their hair, wardrobe and weight — who wants more? And on American soil seeded by generations of deliberate climate misinformation and politicization, it’s a big ask for folks who feed their families on ratings-driven advertising to throw around the double-C word.

“I know it would have been easier, probably better, for my local television career not to connect the [climate change] dots,” Paul Douglas told me recently. “Because local TV news is a popularity contest. We want to be professional. We want to be true to the science. But at the end of the day, we want more viewers.”

I remember Douglas slipping climate change explainers into his forecasts back in the ’90s when I was coming up through newsrooms in Green Bay, Chicago and L.A., and he’s shaken off enough switchboard hecklers to remain one of the most trusted and beloved meteorologists in Twin Cities history.

Granted, public discourse is a hell of a lot scarier now, and after a death threat in Des Moines last summer, journeyman meteorologist Chris Gloninger walked away from an 18-year career on TV. After he quit, he wrote that there was an outpouring of support from good-hearted and science-minded Iowans, and I like to think that if Chris and his management knew it was there in the first place, he might have stayed.

With rare exception, humanity’s biggest problems and solutions start with the stories we tell ourselves. The way we talk about climate (or don’t) only makes the problem harder to solve. (It will get solved, by the way — it’s just a matter of how much Earth and life is lost in the meantime.)

After I put these reflections in my first book, framed as a letter to my son, we sent it out to big-market newsrooms during the marketing launch, and got the most sobering response from the longtime lead meteorologist at the CBS affiliate in Houston.

“Tell him to write a letter to his son about how NASA and NOAA say the earth is getting greener and has been for the last 35 years,” David Paul emailed. “Which means there is more life on Earth than ever in his father’s lifetime.”

It’s been a while since I’d heard the “unchecked carbon pollution is plant food” line of climate science denial, and I couldn’t believe it was coming from someone touting a seal from the American Meteorological Society in a climate-ravaged megalopolis like Houston, the fourth-largest TV market in America. He linked to a 2016 article from NASA (which is careful to point out that CO2 “can be beneficial for plants but is also the chief culprit of climate change”), and I desperately wanted to ask if he’s read NASA’s more recent posts on the topic, but multiple requests to Paul and KHOU-TV for an interview or comment were never returned.

Meanwhile over in Miami, after Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that he would be removing all considerations of climate change from Florida state law, meteorologist Steve MacLaughlin took to the NBC6 greenscreen and pointed out that this culture war move was happening “in spite of the fact that the state of Florida in the last couple years has seen record heat, record flooding, record rain, record insurance rates, and the corals are dying all around the state.”

Without mentioning names or political parties, MacLaughlin went on to say, “We would never tell you who to vote for, but we will tell you this. We implore you to please do your research and know that there are candidates that believe in climate change and that there are solutions, and there are candidates that don’t.”

It’s telling that by simply explaining physics and democracy in an election year, MacLaughlin’s comments generated as many headlines as the change in legislation. But while he politely declined my request for comment, sources tell me that positive feedback to NBC6 outweighed the negative by a wide margin.

A couple of years ago, researchers at Princeton, Boston College and the University of Indiana asked Americans to guess the percentage of fellow citizens concerned about climate change and supportive of action. Regardless of party, they guessed between 37 and 43 percent.

In reality, it is 66 to 80 percent.

“Supporters of climate policies outnumber opponents two to one,” the authors of the study found, “while Americans falsely perceive nearly the opposite to be true.”

At the same time, while two-thirds of Americans say they are at least “somewhat worried” about global warming, the same percentage says they talk about it with friends and family “rarely” or “never.”

As lives and fortunes are lost in what is set to be a summer of record-shattering unnatural disaster, it’s long past time for the only scientists in every living room — our local weather folks — to give their audience the facts about climate science, without fear or favor.

It is time for station managers to encourage anchors to back them up and empower their producers and reporters to pitch and cover all angles of the climate crisis, both the nightmares of flood and fire and the profitable dreams of clean tech, Earth repair and a more resilient future.

But my “everyone is a climate reporter” fantasy can only come true with viewers and advertisers who their stations know how much this kind of reporting is valued.

While no TV market will be safe from unimaginable changes to Life as We Know It, those with information ecosystems that are healthy and true will suffer least.

And with no apologies to The News Consultant, “Is my home safe?” and, “Is the planet safe?” are questions that should overlap on every newscast, at 5, 6, 11 and beyond.

Bill Weir is a CNN anchor and creator of The Wonder List With Bill Weir streaming on Max. In 2019, he became the first chief climate correspondent in American TV news, and his first book, Life as We Know It (Can Be), is available now.

This story first appeared in the June 2024 Sustainability issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to see the rest of the issue.

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