That means avoiding the phrase “climate change,” so loaded with partisan connotations as it is. Stop talking about who or what is most responsible. And focus instead on what is happening and how unusual it is—and what it is costing communities.
The strategy is being increasingly employed in more conservative regions of the country, where climate doubt still runs deep—even if there are signs of cracks in the resistance thanks to the pummeling pattern of highly unusual and costly weather events.
“They see it firsthand,” Robert Mark Simpson, a professor of geography at the University of Tennessee at Martin, told me. “There is a sort of acknowledgment that the climate is changing. They just don’t think humans are that impactful. [They think blaming humans is] a conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. economy.”
Simpson attended the conference at the Phoenix Convention Center to outline his three-year effort to educate farmers about climate change in western Tennessee and eastern Kentucky, where at some dinner tables the term remains a political curse word. Tennessee just elected a leading climate change doubter, Marsha Blackburn, to the U.S. Senate.
It’s a tall order. So, he is also trying another tack to reach the political and religious conservatives for which farming has been in the family for generations: warning that the family business might be in jeopardy—sooner than they might think.
“Will they be able to farm here 30 to 40 years from now?”
Another line of argument he has found to appeal to conservatives’ personal connection to nature.
“Many are hunters and fishermen. They are really tied to the environment,” Simpson said. He finds he can reach them by trying to tap into their belief that “we’ve been given stewardship” of the Earth.
But the political headwinds that he and others are up against—especially in red states where political leaders are unwilling to accept the scientific consensus that human activity is playing an outsize role in the changing climate—were on display last weekend.
As winter storms bore down on large swaths of the country, Trump took to Twitter to warn Americans to “be careful and try staying in your house. Large parts of the Country are suffering from tremendous amounts of snow and near record setting cold.”
Nowhere is the challenge of convincing the doubters without being labeled a partisan or environmental zealot greater than in the ranks of broadcast meteorologists. Local TV weather experts were among the last holdouts in the scientific community to accept the consensus that humans are responsible for climate change—so much so that in 2014 then-President Barack Obama met with some of them as part of his effort to sell his environmental policy agenda.
“I think a lot of the broadcasters were concerned that there was such a political divide within the population and if they were very vocal of any aspect of climate change some subset of their audience would not view them with a level of trust,” Keith Seitter, a meteorologist and the American Meteorological Society’s executive director, told me.
Now, some 600 broadcast meteorologists, out of an estimated 2,200 in the United States, are working with Climate Matters to craft new ways to tell their viewers about climate change.
“I have changed my presentation a bit,” Jim Gandy, chief meteorologist for the CBS affiliate in Columbia, S.C., told me. “I used to start with the science. Now I try to show them how it is changing and then I go into why it is changing. That may be a more effective approach. I share the raw data with them that has not been ‘manipulated’ and it throws them for a loop.”
Even in viewing areas considered Democratic strongholds, talking about climate change can be risky.
“You have to be careful,” Bob Ryan, a longtime television meteorologist in Washington who was the first network meteorologist, told me. “If you get into policy you are getting into political quicksand. People don’t want to be lectured to. That doesn’t accomplish anything.”
So he too is in the habit of explaining related weather events in the context of how much more often they are occurring than in the past. “Ellicott City has had a number of 500-year flood events in recent years,” he cites as one example, referring to the Baltimore suburb.