Climate education program receives $3 million grant

The program Climate Matters recently received a $3 million grant to help better communicate climate change to the public.

Dr. Edward Maibach, the director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication and the lead investigator for the program, says that the $3 million grant will allow Climate Matters to recruit more weathercasters in more media markets, upgrade the training offered to weathercasters and do research that will improve the quality of the broadcast materials that are produced for the weathercasters.

Climate Matters was created with the help of Climate Central, an organization comprised of scientists who report facts about climate change and how it will effect Americans. Climate Matters produces broadcast material that their TV weathercasters then use to educate the public on the facts of climate change and how it can affect people and their communities.

Illustration by Laura Baker

Illustration by Laura Baker

Barry Klinger, a developer of Climate Matters and a professor of atmospheric, oceanic and earth sciences at Mason, says the grant will allow Climate Matters’ influence to spread.

“Climate Matters started as a pioneering collaboration between George Mason University, Climate Central and WLTX-TV in South Carolina to help television weather reports inform the public about climate change,” Klinger said. “It won our WLTX colleague, Jim Gandy, a 2013 American Meteorology Society Award for Excellence in Science Reporting. The new grant will help the Mason Center for Climate Change Communication extend this effort in climate reporting to a large group of media outlets across the nation.”

The program was started in hopes of educating people on climate change and its effect on society. Studies show that while climate scientists are the most trusted source of information on climate change, TV weathercasters can reach a much wider audience.

“[TV weathercasters] have great access to the public because most Americans still watch local TV news a few days per week, and they are excellent communicators,” Maibach said. “Fifty years of social science research has shown that familiarity leads to liking, and liking leads to trust. People are familiar with TV weathercasters because they invite them into their homes—on their screens—on average several times per week.”

Maibach hopes that the project will stress that climate change is not happening far away with little influence on Americans, but is happening in Americans’ backyards.

Timothy DelSole, professor of atmospheric, oceanic, and Earth sciences at Mason, warns students to make sure to use reliable information sources. He says that unlike Climate Matters weathercasters, many weathercasters do not actually believe global warming is happening.

“George Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication conducted a survey of TV meteorologists in 2010 and found that only 35% of them agreed that global warming is happening and is due to man,” DelSole said. “By contrast, 97% of the scientists who actively study climate change say that global warming is happening and due to man.”

DelSole also added that while it can be difficult to predict the exact effects of climate change on a small area like Mason, there is a high level of confidence that climate change will definitely affect Virginia.

“The probability of higher temperatures over Virginia will increase in the future, with many more days above 90 degrees compared to the end of last century,” DelSole said. “This change will stress vulnerable people, infrastructure, agriculture and ecosystems.”

DelSole also added that projections of precipitation are less certain, but that there seems to be good evidence that Virginia will experience increases in the frequency of heavy downpours. Virginia is also more vulnerable to flooding because it has relatively flat coastlines and experiences a higher rate of sea level rise than the global average.

Klinger said there are many ways students, faculty and staff can make a small impact on climate change.

“We know that society can affect climate and make large and potentially dangerous changes in the environment,” Klinger said. “Mason already has a number of green initiatives which can be found at the Office of Sustainability. If you are interested in having a smaller impact on the environment, a good way to start is look at activities that take the most energy, such as driving, heating/air-conditioning and eating meat and find ways to do them so that you pollute less.”

DelSole says that the best things students, faculty and staff can do about climate change is have an honest discussion.

“The starting point of this discussion should be that the overwhelming majority of scientists who actively study climate change agree that the earth is warming and that the warming is due primarily to human activities,” DelSole said. “If we can’t agree that climate scientists strongly agree on this issue—a factual matter that can be checked— then I can understand why some people would be reluctant to support changes. Why support changes if you question whether warming is real or whether warming is just a natural fluctuation?”

According to Klinger, this grant will benefit not only Climate Matters but will also greatly affect Mason.

“The grant will undoubtedly raise the visibility of Mason in this area,” Klinger said. “[Mason] is already making many important contributions to climate-related studies. Climate Matters’ efforts to educate the general public may highlight the many ways Mason staff and students are working on climate issues.”

This story was originally published in the Oct. 6 issue of Fourth Estate.