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Stick to the facts: Climate Central’s Bernadette Woods-Placky on how reporters can better cover climate change

Stick to the facts: Climate Central’s Bernadette Woods-Placky on how reporters can better cover climate change

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Photo by Flickr: U.S. Geological Survey
Photo by Flickr: U.S. Geological Survey

We recently sat down with Brenda Woods-Placky, chief meteorologist and director of the Climate Matters program at Climate Central, an organization that researches and reports on the science and impact of climate change. Through Climate Matters, Woods-Placky works with broadcast meteorologists and journalists to produce content that aims to educate the public on climate change.

During your panel at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists/ Excellence in Journalism conference, someone remarked that most Americans understand or accept the fact that the climate is changing, but have misconceptions about what that really means. Do you agree?

There’s a growing trend that the majority of Americans are convinced that the climate is changing, and are interested in learning more about it. Yale Climate Opinion Maps break down how people feel about climate change by county level on different criteria, so you can really dive into any section of the country and pull up what people’s views are. It has incredible national, state, congressional district, and county-level granular data. What you land on here is the percentage of adults who think climate change is happening. And you see almost the entire country is on the redder side, meaning they believe climate change is occurring. You can go in deeper and explore risk perception, policy support, behavior, and other metrics. Either way, you see that overall, the majority of Americans think this is happening and are concerned about it.

So, what’s driving the misconceptions about climate change?

There’s a few ways to look at this. Obviously, there’s a disconnect if our policy is still moving in the direction that it is. First, the concept of climate change has always been viewed as distant in time and space. It’s a hard science to really visualize in that sense, versus something spewing out of a volcano, or a hurricane crashing down on the shore.

Secondly, it has been brought over the political agenda line, where I think a lot has gone awry. Tobacco is a great scientific debate that people compare this to. There were some funded anti-tobacco campaigns, and it took a long time, but science eventually won out. While the tobacco debate did become political to an extent, climate change has gotten deeply entrenched in politics in a country that’s more polarized and with a lot more misinformation coming out. So, there’s a lot more fighting against the concept of climate change in that sense.

In reality, the rest of the world is already taking a ton of action, in addition to a lot of places in the United States in the private sector as well as cities and states who have become very outspoken on climate change. Though it has a loud voice, there is only a very small percentage of the world that is actually anti-climate change.

How exactly does climate change affect health?

One of the clearest impacts from climate change is the increase in extreme heat, both in intensity and frequency. Essentially, that means that we are getting hotter heat waves that last longer, which increases the risk of heat-related illnesses such as heat stress and heat stroke. On average, spring is blooming earlier and the first freeze is coming later in the fall, which is extending and worsening allergy seasons. Aside from extreme weather that directly affects lives, as temperatures rise and precipitation patterns shift, the spread and distribution of vector-borne diseases (such as Lyme, malaria, West Nile, Zika) are changing both in geography and seasons. 

Food and water security are already at risk in parts of the world, and that threat is only going to intensify. This also plays a role in migration and increases national security risks — all of which affect human health and security. Add to that the complicated relationship between climate change and air quality.

How can climate change affect improvements made from the Clean Air Act?

[Global] warming could also be playing a part in ground-level ozone. Another air quality issue that’s on the rise with climate change is worsening air around wildfires - particularly in the West. 

Has climate change always been so politically divisive?

Not that long ago, it wasn’t such a polarizing issue. It was on the Republican platform through George W. Bush. So, this started out as a science with some fighting against it, but it was really in the recent past that it became so polarized.

How can journalists present balanced reporting on the climate change debate without giving legitimacy to arguments that refute sound science?

When you talk about the science, the fundamental facts are clear, and the best way to report is just to stick to the facts and draw out the stories that make it personal to your audience. If you’re trying to get the point of tension, which drives a lot of journalistic stories, there is tension within policy decisions, within how much warming by what date, and the advancement of that scientific research. It’s all about creating an informed public.

How can journalists frame climate change in a way that makes people care about it?

Climate change is already affecting our health, our economy, the way we live, our weather, our seasons, our agriculture, and our industries. We need to get those stories out, so that when an informed public rebuilds after something like Hurricane Harvey, they’re rebuilding in their best interest.

Any tips on how reporters can localize the climate change story?

We want to help journalists find those stories that really connect with their audience. If you’re telling health stories within extreme weather stories, for example, make the connections where they exist. How does this affect your pocket book? How does this affect your health? How does this affect your kids going forward? Your business? Your food? People may not realize how much impact there already is from climate change. 

How is the media doing when it comes to reporting on climate change?

I think that there is a lot of confusion and misinformation on the science in general still. We are advancing so rapidly in the solutions space of climate change, and I think people are still connecting with stories from years ago when things are revolutionizing every six months in energy, transportation, energy storage, and electricity. We’re actually at a point where it’s more affordable and cheaper to make some of these changes that acknowledge climate change than to hang on to the way we did things before. And that’s what we’re trying to do: help journalists sort through that information and have scientifically grounded story ideas, and help them get these stories out there.

Where can reporters go for resources on climate change reporting?

There are numerous places. We’re doing our best to get scientific information out and localize it to cities across the United States when possible. We’ve already been doing that with our Climate Matters program for broadcast meteorologists and now we’re expanding those resources to newsrooms.

There are numerous government organizations that have incredible information out there: NASA, NOAA, our Department of Energy, etc. Locally, journalists should get to know their nearby universities and people who are researching in this space, and what new discoveries they are making.


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The central problem is the sentiment: "this started out as a science with some fighting against it". Real science depends on minds open to consideration of contradictory hypotheses. The "some fighting against it" are the "real" scientists saying: "stop and reevaluate your dogmatic conclusions!" Unfortunately, minds that are closed to considering alternative discussion/considerations/conclusions will burn those who question them because "everyone knows the earth is flat".
Thanks to the National Science Foundation for support during my Princeton Univ. chemistry PhD studies.


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