Future Tense

How TV Meteorologists Can Talk About Climate Change Even During a Polar Vortex

An interview with Climate Central’s Sean Sublette.

A man is silhouetted against the smoke rising off Lake Michigan.
A man is silhouetted against the smoke rising off Lake Michigan in Chicago on Jan. 6, 2014. Reuters/Jim Young

Forecasts indicate that a polar vortex will smite the Midwest and parts of the East Coast with dangerously cold weather. Beyond extreme subzero temperatures, states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and South Dakota are likely experiencing wind chill between 40 and 60 degrees below zero.

Despite long-term warming trends, skeptics often seize on cold spells such as these to speciously claim that climate change is a farce. President Donald Trump articulated this mistaken sentiment in a tweet Monday night.

The people perhaps best positioned to combat these misconceptions about how climate change affects weather events are TV meteorologists. Your trusted weather forecaster can explain the wider climate trends that give context to a polar vortex or storm. However, surveys indicate that a contingent of meteorologists are themselves skeptical of climate change, and that those who cover weather for the news are hesitant to appear partisan by mentioning the topic.

The nonprofit Climate Central has been working to encourage broadcast meteorologists to supplement daily forecasts about things like the polar vortex with information about climate change. Slate spoke to Sean Sublette, a meteorologist at Climate Central who previously worked as a broadcast weather forecaster for 19 years, about his organization’s work. The transcript of the conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Slate: How do you think climate change facts and discussion should be incorporated into TV weather coverage?

Sublette: Each broadcast meteorologist needs to understand his or her own audience and the messages that are going to connect best with that audience. We find it easy to take one or two approaches. One is to take a small bit of data that is out there and work that into a normal weathercast. Let’s say you have a normal 2½-minute weathercast and you’re in a little bit of a warm spell. We’ve noticed that warm spells tend to be getting longer and more frequent, and we have some localized data that can echo that point. Briefly share that [data] for 10 or 15 seconds during the regular weathercast, and that can go a long way in explaining how the climate overall is warming.

There’s another longer way to do this: You see more and more meteorologists doing stories to show the impacts in local communities of a warming climate. For example, some colleagues in Boston, at the Fox affiliate there a few days ago, did a story about people who own outdoor skating rinks in Massachusetts and about how they’re having a little more trouble keeping the skating rinks going now during the entire classical winter season. So they’re not getting the kind of business that they used to. There’s an economic impact as well.

How do you decide when to introduce climate change content into weather coverage? Is it ever-present, or usually just tied to specific events?

What we try to do [at Climate Central] is follow the kind of weather pattern that is coming forward across the country, something that’s going to work with what’s going on in the local or national conversation at the time. For example, we’ve got a mass of Arctic outbreak coming for the middle part of the country for a couple of days this week. So what we’re going to be sharing with our meteorologists is that the kind of cold that’s going to be coming into the Midwest and Great Lakes certainly is going to be breaking daily records, but it’s very unlikely that it’s going to be all-time-record cold. We’re going to have the data to show them that the intensity of the cold is not as bad as it used to be, the frequency of the cold is not as bad as it used to be, and the length of time cold stays around is not as bad as it used to be.

In this outbreak that’s going to come in the upper Midwest, certainly the temperatures are going to be 25 or 35 degrees below normal, and in some places that’s going to be pushing 30 or even 40 degrees below zero, but just four or five days after that, the temperatures are going to swing back above normal. It’ll be 10 or 15 degrees above normal in Wisconsin and Michigan by Friday and Saturday.

When you have a cold spell like this, how do meteorologists address viewers who might see the weather as proof that climate change isn’t real?

Anytime there’s a cold spell, that invariably happens, and that’s why we try to walk people through other analogies that help. When we’re thinking about baseball, if you go back to the steroid era, there were a lot more home runs back then. You couldn’t look at one particular batter and say, “He’s on steroids, so that particular home run was caused by steroids.” But you can say that there was more widespread steroid use, therefore there were more home runs in general being hit. So what we’re saying here now is that because in general it is a warming climate, there are going to be fewer of these cold outbreaks going forward. They’re not all going to go away, but they are going to be less intense and less frequent. These cold spells certainly get attention—as well as they should because it’s dangerous cold that’s going to happen up there—but let’s not lose sight of the long-term trend.

How do you bring up these facts and broader context in the very limited amount of time that meteorologists have in a typical TV weather forecast?

For example, the data we’re preparing for this week will show the individual coldest temperatures recorded at 244 cities across the country over the last 50 years and will all be plotted up. When you look at all those dots together, you’ll see that 40 or 50 years ago, all those dots were at a much lower temperature than they are today.

So we can say, “This is very, very cold, no question. But if you look back at the record for the last 50 years, we don’t get this kind of cold nearly as frequently as we used to. That’s really indicative of overall warming climate.” You drop it in like that and you’re talking about it for five or 10 seconds.

Many meteorologists are reportedly unwilling to attribute specific events or storms to climate change. What do you think of this?

The entire atmosphere is a little bit different than it was 100 years ago, so there’s an influence on weather patterns and weather events. What we’re trying to do is see how much of an influence a warming climate has on a particular event. We try to walk people away from: “Climate change caused this—yes or no?” It’s not a yes-no proposition.

You don’t want to say, “Yes, this was caused by climate change.” But you could say, “This was probably made a little bit worse because of it—the difference between 30 inches and 34 or 35 inches [of rain].” It’s still a phenomenal amount of precipitation, but it may make a very bad situation perhaps catastrophic.

How do you communicate the urgency of gradual trends like this that may seem subtle to viewers?

The trick is that on a human time scale, it still seems pretty slow. When you say “rapid” to people without a scientific background, they expect to see something happening in a few hours or a couple of days, not over the scale of 100 or 200 years. So that’s why we talk about the frequency of these extreme events. Like this is something that might’ve only happened once every 100 years, and now it’s happening once every 20 or 30 years.

Surveys suggest that there are a sizable number of broadcast meteorologists who are climate skeptics. Does this concern you, and is there anything to be done about it?

I think what we are seeing is that the number is dropping, and it’s been dropping very quickly from what we’ve been able to tell, especially in the last three or four years.

Each meteorologist has his or her own personal feelings, and that will come out in the way they decide to approach the subject. There’s not much you can do about that. But I do think we are seeing a progression of operational meteorologists becoming more willing to accept the scientific consensus and to talk about it, especially in a nonpolitical way. Sadly, this is still a very political issue here in the States, unlike the rest of the world.

Some broadcast meteorologists have reportedly been hesitant to mention climate change on air because it might make them seem partisan to viewers. How do you address the fear?

Depending on what part of the country you’re in, you can decide on how you want to speak about the topic. You can talk about the impacts without necessarily saying the words climate change. You can just say, “As the climate has continued to warm,” and you’ve basically gotten the same message across, but in a way that’s not setting bells and whistles off to certain numbers of viewers.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.