20 February 2013

Communicating Climate Change In A Responsible Way

Posted by Dan Satterfield

Meteorologist Jim Gandy who was featured on NPR this morning.

My friends Ed Maibach at George Mason University, and Meteorologist Jim Gandy in South Carolina were featured on NPR’s Morning Edition on Tuesday. Dr. Maibach has been researching climate change communication for several years now, (Full disclosure, I was on an advisory committee for a couple of his studies.)  and it’s well worth a listen.

A lot of on air meteorologists are downright afraid to mention climate change on air because they will often get angry emails from viewers (who believe it to be a hoax). On the other hand, there have been some downright silly statements from on air weathercasters (even a few with a significant science background), that have been frankly embarrassing to those of us who care about giving accurate science on air. A group called forecast the facts has begun to publicize some of the more ridiculous comments made by on air weathercasters.  The AMS has also received complaints because some of those with AMS (or CBM) seals have said some things which are rather indefensible scientifically.

Bud Ward (at the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media) pointed out that the NPR report left hanging an old myth. That misconception is that we cannot rely on weather model forecasts of a hundred years into the future, when they cannot get the weather next week right.  I’ve written before about this here and here.

In short, we use weather models to forecast weather and climate models to forecast climate. The great thing about climate models is you can test them by starting in the past and running them up to the present.Take a look at the image below and you will see just how well the models can do. They only successfully recreate the real world temperatures over the last century when the increasing greenhouse gases are factored in. These same models indicate significant warming over the coming decades, if greenhouse gas levels rise as predicted (They are rising faster than predicted in general by the way).

Jim Gandy got it spot on when he said that you can no longer ignore climate change when discussing the weather. What we do about the problem is a difficult political question, but accurately reporting the science is the right thing to do. Frankly, ignoring it because of worry about critical feedback from viewers seems to me a bit unethical journalistically.