On Thursday, TV meteorologists around the world busted out red, white, and blue striped ties, pins, and mugs on the air. It wasn’t a random burst of America pride, but rather an attempt to raise awareness about climate change.
The accessories featured a recent visualization by University of Reading climate scientist Ed Hawkins showing average temperature deviations from the late 1800s, a gradient from cooler-than-average blues in the 19th century to warmer-than-average reds today. `
“It struck me as an opportunity to communicate climate change in the simplest way possible,” broadcast meteorologist Jeff Berardelli, who organized the effort which spread onto social media under the hashtag #MetsUnite, told the Washington Post’s Capitol Weather Gang.
A widely-publicized 2010 poll found that acceptance of the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change was low among meteorologists. There’s been a lot of reporting on how meteorologists are reluctant to discuss the subject on air. But those trends are changing, in part thanks to non-profit Climate Central, whose Climate Matters program develops materials for TV meteorologists that draw connections between weather events and climate.
As NBC reported on Wednesday, more than 500 TV meteorologists have made use of Climate Matters resources since 2012, while coverage of global warming during your typical TV weather briefing has shot up more than tenfold.
But despite being objectively real, climate change remains a politically charged topic, and some Republican politicians weren’t happy to hear about it slipping into the morning weather report. After NBC’s report was published four GOP senators who have publicly doubted or denied the consensus on climate change—Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, James Lankford, and James Inhofe—called for a formal investigation into National Science Foundation grants awarded to universities and Climate Central, including the one used to develop Climate Matters.
The senators claim that the grants, which totaled $4 million, were spent in an effort to “turn television meteorologists into climate change evangelists” and suggest they may have been in violation on the Hatch Act, which requires federal programs be administered in a non-partisan way. Climate Central, which positions itself as explicitly non-partisan, is pushing back hard against these claims.
“Climate Central’s Climate Matters program educates TV meteorologists about climate science” Ben Strauss, CEO and chief scientist at Climate Central, told Earther in an email. “That is no more partisan than educating football announcers about the science of concussions.”
Strauss went on to refute another assertion of the letter, that the grants fall outside the scope of NSF’s “basic research” mission. In fact, the agency has a long history of supporting communication and outreach work. The Climate Matters grant was administered under a program aimed at advancing STEM education.
Earther reached out to the NSF for comment on the call for an investigation, and has not received a response as of publication. The NSF’s Office of the Inspector General told HuffPost reporter Alex Kaufman that it would look into the matter this fall.
Several meteorologists who spoke with Earther said they’ve found Climate Matters materials very useful. John Morales, chief meteorologist with NBC-6 Miami, runs a small consulting firm that translates Climate Central’s information into Spanish. He said Miami sees lots of signals of climate change, from extreme weather to an uptick in sunny day floods, and that it’s a TV meteorologist’s job to discuss such matters.
“We’re often on the air discussing meteor showers, earthquakes, weather factors affecting aviation or marine mishaps, rocket launches, volcanoes, and geoscience in general,” Morales said. “Presenting climate science on television... is no different than explaining why and how meteors burn up in our atmosphere to produce shooting stars.”
Still, other mets remain wary of discussing the climate, whether because of their own skepticism, because they don’t feel expert enough in the topic, or for fear of offending part of their audience in such a polarized time.
Communicating accurately about connections between weather and climate is hard. It can be months or years after a specific storm or drought before scientists are can say with confidence what sort of a role climate change played.
But as #MetsUnite has shown, belief in the importance breaking down climate science for the public seems to be at an all-time high among meteorologists. “It has been amazing to see so many getting involved in the
#MetsUnite initiative,” Hawkins told Earther via Twitter direct message.
If Cruz and crew were hoping to put the kibosh on that, they may be too late.
Disclosure: Earther staffer Brian Kahn used to work at Climate Central. This article has been updated with a comment from Ed Hawkins.