The Heat Is Online

The Weather Channel To Make the Climate Connection

Weather Channel tunes to changing climate

Greenwire, Jan. 8, 2004

The Weather Channel, the cable network for weather enthusiasts across the country since 1982, may soon become the only major media outlet to cover global climate change on a consistent basis.

TWC's "Forecast Earth" initiative, which will cover climate change and other environmental issues, is particularly significant because of the station's broad reach. It can be seen in 87 million U.S. households and its Web site attracts 20 million unique users per month. Experts say TWC's plans are also noteworthy because there is a dearth of climate change coverage on television, particularly on local news where weather forecasters have largely steered clear of the subject.

"On local TV weather [climate change] really is still in the closet. Local TV meteorologists don't have the time, and some of them feel uncertain about how they should position themselves, they don't know who they might offend," said Robert Henson, author of Television Weathercasting: A History. Henson said CNN used to air a weekly series on the environment, but that type of coverage has not been as visible in recent years.

Position statement

As part of its initiative, TWC updated its global warming position statement late last year to reflect some of the recent scientific research. According to the statement, surface temperatures have risen by up to 1.5 degrees Farenheit during the past century, and there is "strong evidence that a significant portion of the current warming is a result of human activities." However, the statement also cautions that industrial activities may not be completely responsible for the warming because the climate system is subject to natural variability.

TWC's August 2001 statement left more wiggle room to describe the connection between human emissions and warming temperatures. "It is likely that at least some of the current warming is a result of human activities," the previous statement said.

Raymond Ban, TWC executive vice president of meteorology, science and strategy, said that by revising the statement, "We were trying to reflect the mainstream science that the evidence suggests strongly that a component of the warming is definitely a result of human activity."

Climate expert added to the mix

In another step toward establishing itself as a reputable source of climate change information, TWC hired Heidi Cullen from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., as its first on-air climate expert.

Cullen described her move to TWC's Atlanta headquarters as a major transition from her Boulder existence of researching while "wearing Birkenstocks and eating tofu."

"I'm definitely different from the classic meteorologist," Cullen said.

Cullen has been putting together three two-minute climate change packages a week and also produced a five-part climate change series that aired last fall. With her input, TWC has recently run stories ranging from whether tropospheric temperatures have been rising along with surface temperatures to the tale of an Atlanta resident who chose to run his 1979 Mercedes on biodiesel fuel to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"I'm trying to broaden the coverage, I do feel that climate issues touch upon everything," Cullen said.

Since the majority of the station's meteorologists are not trained in climatology, Cullen said she spends part of her time educating them about climate change. "There are a lot more skeptics in the meteorological community than I was used to in the climate community because the topics are different and the time scales are different," Cullen said.

Cullen said communicating climate change science via television is difficult because the subject typically lacks the visuals of other stories, so she has been using video of coastal erosion and the heat wave in Europe to illustrate some of the impacts. "Global warming is like a hurricane on certain levels, it just doesn't look like that on a radar image," she said. "But the impacts are there and we are starting to see them."

Science and politics

Although Ban said TWC is intent on remaining scientifically objective and politically neutral, outside experts said covering climate change inherently runs the risk of pulling the uncontroversial station into the stormy climate change political debate. "The simple fact that they are discussing the issue means they are not going to avoid the politics," said Roger Pielke Jr., director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado.

Pielke suggested that TWC discuss climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies rather than sticking to the latest scientific research. Pielke compared this to the way TWC offers safety tips when covering severe weather such as tornadoes and flash floods.

"A similar approach on climate change makes sense. If you have the science, what does the science mean for the actions that can be taken?" he said. However, Pielke said a "fear of politics" could keep TWC from focusing on such issues.

Nevertheless, Ross Gelbspan, author of The Heat is On, said TWC's climate change coverage could have a significant effect on the political dynamics of the issue. "To me this is a major step forward in terms of the media," Gelbspan said. "The critical missing ingredient is the media and the press in informing the public, I think most of the public thinks the science is unsettled."

Mish Michaels, a meteorologist for WBZ-TV in Boston, said TWC's initiative is a positive step toward promoting discussion of climate change. "I think the key is dialogue, if there is no dialogue because there is no information flow, then you're really not serving the public well," Michaels said.

Climate change skeptics who believe human emissions are not the main cause of climate change said they hope TWC presents all sides of the debate and refrains from linking each major storm to global warming. "There is a fear that every time something bad happens, like a hurricane, people say, 'whoa, global warming,'" said Mark Herlong, program director at the George C. Marshall Institute. "You kind of have to see what they do with it."

Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who confessed he mainly gets his weather information from newspapers, said he worries TWC will try to "spark controversy" in order to attract more viewers. "It strikes me as a waste of time, but their business is attracting viewers, my business is promoting what I think is the truth. I don't think man-made climate change is an important issue," Ebell said.

Story by Andrew Freedman for Greenwire


The Weather Channel Announces Position on Global Warming

The Weather Channel, May 12, 2004

Nation's Weather Provider Hires Leading Climate Expert, Presents New Climate Programming, Serves as Weather Authority for Upcoming Twentieth Century Fox Movie "Day After Tomorrow"

Is global warming reality or pure fiction? Are people's activities really causing climate change, and if so, to what extent?

These are questions plaguing our nation today as we come to terms with the fact that the earth's climate is indeed changing  and warming. The Weather Channel, the world's most trusted authority on all-things weather-related, has taken a close look at the situation and announced its new position on the controversial issue of global warming.

"Over the past few years, The Weather Channel has evolved its position on global warming in an effort to objectively represent what the state of the science is," said Dr. Heidi Cullen, recently appointed Climate Expert for The Weather Channel. "In regard to the role that people play in influencing our climate, we recognize and respect that there will be those who disagree with us, but our position is consistent with that of the majority of climate scientists."

Fact or Fiction?

Global warming is real. Global average temperature has increased 1 - 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit during the past century. Impacts can already be seen, especially in geographic locations like Alaska where melting glaciers and the retreat of Arctic sea ice have increased the vulnerability of local populations and then there are effects such as coastal erosion.

"It's difficult to determine precisely to what extent the current warming is due to human activity," said Cullen. "Throughout history, there have been large -- and sometimes sudden -- climate changes -- most of them before humans could possibly have been a factor. Plus, the sun/atmosphere/land/ocean 'climate system' is extraordinarily complex."

However, it is a fact that burning of fossil fuels injects additional carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This adds to the "greenhouse effect," a natural process that keeps the earth's surface warmer than it would otherwise be and helps make it habitable for human life.

Scientific assessments of changes in amounts of greenhouse gases and in the world's temperatures provide strong evidence that a significant portion of the current warming is a result of human activities. People are also changing the climate at a more local level. Replacing vegetation with buildings and roads is causing temperature increases through what's known as the "urban heat island effect." Additionally, land use changes such as urbanization and deforestation increase the tendency for flash floods and mudslides resulting from heavy rain.

The future remains uncertain. Potential outcomes over the next century (and beyond) range from moderate and manageable to extreme and catastrophic, depending on a number of factors. A better understanding of the climate system as well as our ability to adapt to climate changes that occur are critical to the future of our planet.

Extreme Weather on the Big and Small Screens

To further support The Weather Channel positioning and focus on providing compelling program offerings that deliver insight into the forces that shape our planet's climate, the network has unveiled new climate-related programs in its "Forecast Earth" series.

On May 27 at 8:30 p.m. ET, The Weather Channel will premiere "Extreme Weather Theories" -- a half-hour special that explores scientific theories about possible, drastic changes to the earth's climate. This special will coincide with the premiere of Twentieth Century FOX's movie "The Day After Tomorrow" -- a science fiction motion picture where the planet is pushed into the next Ice Age. The Weather Channel has served as the highlighted weather authority for this movie.

Characteristic of a 24-hour weather network that provides trusted, expert coverage during the most severe of weather situations, The Weather Channel is shown in "The Day After Tomorrow" as one of the last networks on-air amidst the chaos caused by the catastrophic weather events. In addition to The Weather Channel meteorologists, who will be portrayed by actors, the film will employ severe weather graphics and images from The Weather Channel.

In "Extreme Weather Theories," Dr. Cullen will examine global warming and the likelihood of it triggering changes in the world's climate that form the premise of "The Day After Tomorrow." Dr. Cullen will also be featured in a special series of climate change/ "The Day After Tomorrow" segments, which will air during the network's primetime program "Evening Edition," that will take a closer look at whether or not drastic weather and climate impacts such as those portrayed in the movie could happen in real life.

Also tied to the launch of "The Day After Tomorrow," The Weather Channel will present "Extreme Weather Week" (May 23-29 at 8 p.m. ET) -- a special themed week of "Storm Stories," its critically acclaimed series hosted by veteran meteorologist and "Storm Tracker" Jim Cantore. All episodes present real extreme weather events, many similar to those depicted in the movie.

"The Weather Channel is committed to investigating important environmental issues that are changing our climate and impacting our world," said Patrick Scott, president of The Weather Channel Networks. "Our new programming initiatives will address a number of questions and concerns that have been expressed by our viewers. In the future, The Weather Channel will continue to devote additional coverage to our climate, its influences and impacts."

Dr. Cullen, a scientist of international standing in climate research on the staff of The Weather Channel, is helping to build the company's climate program through the development of new products and by helping to strengthen relationships within the global climate community. Most recently, Dr. Cullen served as a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, CO. She has also conducted research in the U.S. Southwest and the Middle East (Syria and Turkey), publishing on domestic and international climate topics. Additionally, she was recently selected to join the World Climate Research Program's Climate Variability (CLIVAR) Scientific Steering Group, an international project aimed at identifying, understanding, and predicting types of variability within the earth's complex climate system.