Critical Mass? New climate report shifts media winds on climate change

I'm an AMS CBM certified broadcast a meteorologist. I've analyzed daily weather maps for the past 35 years. I've done TV weathercasts for stations in the Twin Cities, Chicago, and Arizona. In the 1990s I started to notice the weather maps, and their patterns seemed to be changing.

I started reporting on climate change in my TV weathercasts in the 1990s. That was over 20 years ago. Six years ago I created a segment called Climate Cast on MPR News. I've been reporting weekly on climate science, news, and solutions ever since. During that time I've interviewed many of the world's top climate scientists, and numerous business and government leaders.

Huttner Jennifer Francis studio
Rutgers climate scientist Jennifer Francis and Paul Huttner talk in MPR News studios in 2018.

Today I am struck, and actually encouraged by the range media coverage and strong reactions to the Fourth National Climate Assesment released last Friday.

It has taken a long time for climate change to show up regularly on the national media radar. But I'm sensing a positive change has finally begun.

How we got here

First a little professional perspective. I've worked in meteorology and studied climate change for decades. This is how climate change science crept onto my radar over the past 20+ years.

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  • In 1995, I worked at WGN-TV during the unprecedented Chicago heat wave that killed more than 700 people. I did a live shot in front of the hospital where they took many of the sick and dying. In the back of the hospital, they brought in freezer trucks to store the growing number of heat-related fatalities. The media made few if any connections to climate change.

  • In the late 1990s, I reported on weather conditions that caused a million acres of mountain pine forests go up in flames in Arizona. It became clear the climate was shifting in this climate-sensitive zone. I interviewed Arizona-based climate scientists like Jonathan Overpeck and Malcolm Hughes and explored the connections between climate change and the extreme weather events I was seeing.

  • I moved back to Minnesota in 2006. Through my work at WCCO-TV and Minnesota Public Radio, it was increasingly clear that our Minnesota winters were dramatically milder. These were not the winters of the 1970s I remember as a kid. Dramatic climate shifts were also increasing around the globe. But national media was still not reporting on climate change with regular frequency. That was clear in 2016 when Media Matters picked up on that topic in one of our Climate Cast hour-long shows with Twin Cities news anchor legend Don Shelby and Geroge Mason University's Ed Maibach.

Media Matters CC
Media Matters

A more recent Media Matters study finds the national network newscasts almost never mentioned links between climate change and extreme weather events like the devastating hurricanes and wildfires in 2017.

Media Matters CC 2017-climate-chart-4 (1)
Media Matters

Where we are today

Now climate change-enhanced, extreme weather events are killing dozens and causing hundreds of billions in damages in the U.S. alone.

2017-billion-dollar-disaster-map (2)

Last Friday's release of the Fourth National Climate Assessment was clearly intended to bury the report on a long holiday weekend. The timing seems to have had the opposite effect. The reports sparked major news and social media play on holiday weekend news cycles.

Critical mass?

To my eyes, this report seems to have triggered a new critical mass for climate change media coverage.

Check out this sampling of national media reporting and reaction since the report. Prominent climate scientists like Michael Mann, Kathryn Hayhoe, and many others have been working overtime on the long holiday weekend.

Strong reaction

I'm sensing a tidal shift in the way many prominent people are talking about the urgency of climate change since last Friday. When Dan Rather starts tweeting this, people are listening.

Even some conservatives are recognizing and admitting, they were wrong about climate science.

And there are new calls for prominent, qualified climate scientists to be regularly featured in national news outlets.

The media landscape on climate change in the past 72 hours is different than any time I can remember. There's still a long way to go to get qualified experts as guests. But this looks and feels different. Let's hope this encouraging trend continues.