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Climate Change - Weatherman In the Hotseat

by Tanya Thomas on September 8, 2009 at 11:00 AM
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 Climate Change - Weatherman In the Hotseat

Familiar faces and voices took to the stage at the World Climate Conference over the past week as weather presenters grappled with a core issue, how best to inform their audience about climate change.

Wedged between the pondered complexity of climate scientists and the demands of the average viewer or listener for certainty come rain or shine, the weather men and women act as a go-between -- and the scapegoat if the forecast errs.


"The truth is we're the ones out there and the face they trust," remarked US TV weather anchor and meteorologist John Toohey-Morales during the Climate Broadcasts Forum in Geneva.

After two decades in the geopolitical and research arena, the science behind climate change is more conclusive and reliable than ever, meteorologists and officials said.

"Imagine farmers being able to determine what to plant and where based on drought forecasts three to five years out," said Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Weather forecasts have gained a degree of reliability that allows presenters to give their audience an idea how to dress or tend livestock for the next day or five.

But climate predictions seasons, years or decades down the road are another matter.

"We are challenged to communicate uncertainties and present them as certainties," Ugandan weather journalist Patrick Luganda pointed out.

The impacts of climate change are still painted with a broad brush, both in terms of their effect on weather and their geographical spread, and are often steeped in scientific jargon and raw data.

While weather forecasting can give precise temperatures and predict drizzle, sun, snow or frost locally the next day -- "deterministic" in the jargon -- climate predictions involve probability and wide patterns or areas.

That often defies the 30 second to three minute weather bulletin.

"You must on TV always talk to four year-olds and to 80 year-olds, the whole range," said Spanish broadcast meteorologist Tomas Molina.

"But it needs to be said only once, the message has to pass quickly."

Meanwhile, years of contradictory and often politicised debate added to public uncertainty.

"We've muddied the waters," said Claire Martin of Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the chairwoman of the International Association of Broadcast Meteorology.

"How do we make people realise that the science does stand upright?"

A survey highlighted by Toohey-Morales suggested that even many US weather anchors were still sceptical about climate change.

"We face a tremendous challenge in the United States regarding educating our audience," he told his foreign colleagues.

"We went through a few years in the United States when any quack could sit alongside a scientist and debate fifty-fifty. So Joe Citizen in Nebraska became confused."

But some weathermen and women -- many of whom are qualified scientists themselves -- also blame the scientific community.

"The biggest problem in communicating climate change is the timidity of scientists in communicating how it is going," lamented former BBC weather centre editor John Teather.

"The scientists have to get out of their closets... These mixed messages are awfully dangerous."

Canadian scientist Gordon McBean said his colleagues never imagined when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was formed that they would have such resonance.

"We're not trained normally to communicate with people apart from students," he admitted.

"To explain it to a grade four schoolchild gave me the skills to explain it to the cabinet minister," quipped McBean.

But while rich nations grapple with too much information, complexity and opinion, Luganda pointed out that poor countries -- which are often the most vulnerable to extreme weather shifts -- suffer from too little.

"Africa is a big hole," sighed the chairman of the Network of Climate Journalists in the Greater Horn of Africa.

Source: AFP

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