THE ONE GROUP OF PEOPLE AMERICANS ACTUALLY TRUST ON CLIMATE SCIENCE
Local meteorologists are better positioned than anyone else to talk their communities through the facts about climate change.By Dan Schwartz
FEBRUARY 22, 2022SHARE
he weatherman’s striped tie is still snug on his neck as he starts an evening bath for his three kids, one of whom bolts naked from the bathroom and does a lap around the kitchen before running back, feet slapping on the hardwood floor. “Okay,” Shel Winkley says, walking into the kitchen where his wife is loading the dishwasher. “I love you,” he tells her, and then he walks outside to his gray Prius, gets in, and drives to the TV station. Dinner’s over. Back to work.
It’s warm outside in Bryan, Texas, warmer than usual on this Wednesday night in October, and on KBTX at 10 p.m. Winkley is going to talk about rising temperatures as a symptom of global climate change. The climate crisis, of course, is a divisive issue in America. A little less than a third of adults don’t see a crisis at all; they see a melodrama. Winkley, 36, used to not worry about climate change much either.
A decade ago, Winkley was a few years out of college and focused on doing his job without messing up on air. TV was intense—the hours, the pace, the volume of work—and he was, as he puts it, a “baby deer.” In school he’d certainly learned about the climate, because he had to understand trends in long-term weather in order to issue short-term forecasts. But when class discussions turned to climate change, his meteorology professors talked mostly about natural cycles instead of human causes.
Winkley, now planted back at his desk in front of his three computer monitors, is clicking and clacking, compiling the weather. On the center monitor he’s loaded rows of daily temperature data, which he’s copying one day at a time into a calendar open on the left monitor. In the right corner of the calendar is a big blank space. It’s 8:27 p.m., and in an hour and a half, when the calendar is projected on the studio’s green screen, he’ll stand in front of the blank space. He has the script in his head. (On the right monitor is Twitter; on Twitter are fans, who respond to his tweets with piles of hearts.) He looks at a coming day’s temperature and the number of degrees it’s forecasted to climb above average. “Pff!” he exclaims. “17.” One or two days like that in October, sure, he says, but several days last week have all exceeded the average by 10 degrees or more, which is not normal. “It’s worrisome.”
The room around him is as large as a high-school classroom, and every surface in it seems to gleam: the polished floor, dark as obsidian; the four big cameras on tripods standing in the center of the floor; the five on-air desks ringed in chrome and faux mahogany that read, in block letters, news, sports, pinpoint, weather. TV is a fancy medium, and we like that, don’t we? We like it so much that on average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we Americans watched TV for more than three hours every day in 2020. While newspapers are folding everywhere (more than 2,100 kaput since 2004), local TV has continued to command our attention like a tennis ball commands a dog. In 2020, local-news stations made a total of $18.4 billion in over-the-air ad revenue. That’s enough money to build, say, our nation’s most advanced aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, and then buy a couple of baseball teams to play on its deck, which would make, in fact, for good TV.
When Winkley finishes his prep for the 10 p.m. broadcast, it’s only 9:23. “Now the question is,” he says to himself, “do I try to bang out a story, or do I play with Instagram?” Both. He starts uploading a behind-the-scenes video montage of him and his team on set doing the news and the weather, and then, begrudgingly, begins writing a story for the station’s website. He writes a headline, deletes it, ponders another headline, and then switches back to the video, which, finally, has uploaded. He watches it again. “Yeah,” he says. “That’ll work.” Then, out of distractions, he resumes writing. “October 2021,” he clacks into the keyboard, “is making a run at one of the warmest ever on record in Bryan–College Station. As of Wednesday”—click-click, clack-clack. And now for a commercial break from our sponsors.
o let’s do the math. The number, approximately, is 77 million, almost a third of American adults. That’s how many people don’t worry much or at all about global warming in this country, according to a September 2021 survey. Seventy-seven million adults could populate New York City nearly nine times over, but that’d be a bad idea, considering big chunks of the Big Apple are projected to be permanently flooded by 2100. By then, if we keep cranking out carbon emissions, fires in the mountains of California may have doubled or tripled in size, and heat waves in the Midwest may be killing thousands of people each year.
Seventy-seven million hardly worried or not worried at all, even though disaster is already an endless season. Why won’t these Americans change their minds? One category of American adults (the 8 percent who are “dismissive” of global warming, according to polling by the Climate Change in the American Mind project) may not because the crisis contradicts their constructed reality. These Americans are mostly older, white, Republican men who see themselves as sturdy individuals rather than members of a society; instead of accepting that the planet is warming, these Americans reject facts in favor of conspiracy theories. Many of these Americans are drawn to conservative media, and their consumption of it invigorates their denial, which stimulates their consumption of conservative media, which invigorates their denial.
These Americans, among others, are stuck in what researchers have called “reinforcing spirals.” Social scientists have long assumed that most of the Americans misinformed about climate change were protecting a constructed reality, but that view is shifting. A more recent study suggests that many in this cohort, which could include the “dismissive,” are sincerely interested in the truth. These people aren’t suspicious of the evidence because it contradicts their view of the crisis but because they don’t trust the available messengers, namely the scientific community and the mainstream media. An alternative is partisan media, such as Fox News, but Fox has captured only a fraction of the American public; many more people watch less-partisan TV such as NBC, ABC, and CBS. “Media outlets with a significant partisan or ideological slant,” the study states, “simply do not reach most of the U.S. population.” So these Americans seeking the truth have fallen through the climate cracks.
Until about a decade ago, so had local TV meteorologists like Winkley. At that time, about half of the country’s TV weathercasters either weren’t certain that the world was warming or were certain that it wasn’t. Those who said they’d experienced obstacles to reporting on climate change in part cited problems similar to the public’s today: They doubted the information they were reading, watching, and hearing. They had no trusted messenger, and many were too harried to find one.
In 2010, a group of respected scientists and journalists, some of whom had worked in TV themselves, began trying to earn the trust of TV meteorologists. The group’s nonprofit, Climate Central, along with partner organizations secured a National Science Foundation grant for their program, which started with a single TV meteorologist, Jim Gandy, in South Carolina. (Emerson Collective, which owns The Atlantic, provides funding to Climate Central.) Gandy had been interested in climate change but had never had time to do the research necessary for on-air segments. Every month, Climate Central provided him with localized climate-change content that he could use during broadcasts—graphics, analyses, maps—which was a huge help, he told me. “I couldn’t have done it,” he said, “without Climate Central.” As the nonprofit expanded its efforts to more stations and more meteorologists, its members were careful not to preach policy solutions; instead, they asked broadcasters how they could help them report on climate change. “We never looked at it like, ‘We’re the ones in charge,’” Bernadette Woods Placky, the program’s director, told me. “It was a relationship. It was a partnership.”
By 2012, Climate Central was working with 10 weathercasters. By the end of 2013, it was working with 100, and it had quadrupled its production of localized reports. The number of participating weathercasters continued to grow, and with more exposure to trusted climate-change information, they began to see climate change for what it was. By 2017, 95 percent of TV weathercasters agreed that the climate was indeed changing. By 2020, 80 percent acknowledged that human activity was a major reason. The facts here did what facts sometimes do when people are actually searching for the truth: They changed minds. Now weathercasters, with their eyes open to the crisis, are better positioned than anyone else to guide the remaining Americans through the same transition. One 2013 study, frequently cited, found that the more people liked a TV weathercaster, the more likely they were to be positively influenced by that weathercaster’s discussion of climate change.
Most Americans typically don’t follow the news until something big happens; once the news cycle is done, surveys show, so are they. Only half of us hear about climate change on the news at least once a month, and only one out of five Americans say they hear about it from people they know in the same time frame. “As a result, it just isn’t a salient or terribly intense concern for many,” John Kotcher, a research assistant professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, told me. But when Americans do want the news, their local TV station is often their chosen source. There, people they recognize and like tell them about the weather, and, lately, these familiar people have begun mentioning “climate-change this” and “climate-change that,” making a crisis that seemed distant and abstract feel a little more real.
“I think there’s a degree of kinship that comes with that” connection, Kotcher said. “As a result, there’s trust there that isn’t necessarily present with, for example, members of the local university.” Those climate scientists, he said, certainly know more about climate change than the local TV meteorologist; they’re just not visible to the public. Winkley is. People see him on TV. People see him at the county fair. People see him walking on their sidewalks, eating dinner at their diners, buying groceries at their grocery store. “Shel is deeply plugged into this community,” Josh Gorbutt, KBTX’s news director, told me when I visited in October. “He is omnipresent. He turns the lights on in downtown Bryan with Santa Claus every year.” When KBTX canceled its 2020 holiday lighting with Santa because of the pandemic, the station distributed little cardboard cutouts of Winkley beaming under a Santa hat. Viewers sent back pictures of little Winkley in their homes: perched on the mantle, hanging from a Christmas tree, fixed to a menorah. “Shel,” they called it, “on the shelf.”
But Winkley, despite his dad charm and hokey on-air jokes and earnest, obvious joy in breaking down big scientific concepts into little understandable chunks, has a tough audience. Even if he succeeds in localizing the global crisis, in establishing that this rain or that heat wave or these winds are not normal, his audience’s definition of normal can quickly change. Texas is a land of extremes, after all, and weather that initially looks like evidence of climate change can soon become routine: The climate’s not changing. We’ve always had storms like this. And people can only worry so much. Social scientists have a name for this too: “the finite pool of worry.” In that pool are a lot of smaller crises, such as getting the kids to school, getting them COVID-tested so they can even go to school, getting yourself to work, getting the kids home, getting the kids to eat dinner. Getting them, like Winkley was struggling with on that unseasonably warm October night, to take a bath.