Most of us watch the local news for the weather, so to say that meteorology has come a long way would be an understatement.
We have corporately-sponsored helicopters whose pilots are heroes, storm chasers with household names and gazillion-watt radar systems dueling with other stations to be the most precise, powerful and fantastic. In Oklahoma, hyping the weather is an industry, and when tornadoes are possible, watching your regular TV schedule is not. And although the histrionics are often over-the-top, there is no doubt that advance warning saves lives.
Yet for all the information that is shared in real time by the most popular and well-paid people in local media, the most important truth of all is never spoken: more and more extreme weather is the result of global climate change. In fact, over nearly four decades of living in Oklahoma, I’ve never heard the phrases, “climate change” or “global warming,” or most accurately now, “global climate emergency,” uttered by a single local weathercaster.
The regular news that surrounds the forecast, however, is the truly terrifying proof: wildfires, floods, super hurricanes, record-breaking cold and heat, melting polar ice and rising sea-levels — often without any mention of what almost all scientists (and now, most meteorologists) know is causing it. This is true, even though weathercasters are local and well-liked celebrities who are better equipped to explain climate change than anyone. So why don’t they?
Everyone knows the answer. The very mention of climate change is considered a political act. Conservatives say liberals worry about it because they hate oil and gas and want everyone to drive an electric car. Liberals say conservatives dismiss it as a left-wing conspiracy to destroy our carbon-based way of life. Like everything else in our Disunited States of America these days, the most dangerous realities we dismiss are the ones that have the least to do with politics. The Earth could care less about how you vote. A perishing planet is the ultimate by-partisan killer.
When it comes to weathercasters and climate change however, things are rapidly changing — except in Oklahoma. A decade ago, most TV forecasters did not mention climate change or had their doubts about it. Now the vast majority do. In fact, they have decided that their position is unique and their relationships to viewers is highly credible.
As the New York Times reported, “Once considered comic relief to anchors, television meteorologists are making it clear to viewers that they are covering a crisis in real time … For decades, the men and women taking their best educated guess about the weather provided a respite from grim news reports, often playing a comic foil to the anchors. Before Willard Scott became the most prominent weatherman of the 1980s on NBC’s ‘Today Show,’ he had played Ronald McDonald and Bozo the Clown.”
But this is no joke. Of course, people often dismiss extreme weather as having always been around when they were a kid, but extreme weather is hardly what it used to be. A warming planet has trapped more water vapor in the atmosphere, fueling storms that far exceed our previous definition of extreme. Weathercasters across the country now feel a moral responsibility to tell us the truth because the science is overwhelming and more of their viewers are experiencing climate change in real and often deadly ways.
This is not about beating people over the head with a reality they often feel helpless to change but rather being honest about what the science says and helping people to confront what is happening in ways that transcend politics. Local stations market weathercasters as heroic figures who help save lives. But climate change is killing people — lots of people whose lives also matter. Have they been told by station management not to mention it? Is it bad for ratings? Probably, but what is a drop in ratings compared to the sixth great extinction?
Years ago, it was a meteorologist at MIT who coined what we paradoxically call “chaos theory.” Edward Lorenz stumbled onto a remarkable discovery when he was trying to create early algorithms to better predict the weather. When he made a miniscule change in the data input to speed up his calculations, the results turned out to be the difference between a blue sky and a monsoon. Why? Because apparently there are no variables too small to affect complex systems. His memorable question was as haunting then as it is timely now, “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”
Now that global temperatures have risen nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900, we are no longer dealing with butterflies. Climate variables are multiplying exponentially, and we need the people we trust every evening to predict the weather to also tell us the truth about why the weather is changing. This is not a conspiracy. This is life and death. This is about our grandchildren and the land we say is grand. It is also about the creation we say is a gift and the sacredness of the only home we have.
Dear Oklahoma weathercasters: Please, please, please join the national movement among meteorologists to share what you know about the reality of global climate change. Wouldn’t that be the true Oklahoma Spirit?
The Rev. Dr. Robin Meyers is pastor of First Congregational Church UCC in Norman and retired senior minister of Mayflower Congregational UCC in Oklahoma City. He is currently Professor of Public Speaking, and Distinguished Professor of Social Justice Emeritus in the Philosophy Department at Oklahoma City University, and the author of eight books on religion and American culture, the most recent of which is, Saving God from Religion: A Minister’s Search for Faith in a Skeptical Age. Visit robinmeyers.com