Amber Sullins has a Bully Pulpit on Climate Communication

May 8, 2017

New Bloomberg piece profiling Amber Sullins, a Phoenix TV Meteorologist I met and interviewed last year for my piece on how America’s weather people are attacking climate change, and denial.

Americans are realizing that, in a Trump administration, if they don’t deal with climate, no one will. (Watch for new video this week on that one..)

Meanwhile, more and more TV mets are being forced to look seriously at the underlying causes of the increasingly bizarre weather events they are covering.


Amber Sullins gets a minute or two to tell up to two million people about some extremely complicated science, using the tools of her trade: a pleasant voice, a green screen, and small icons denoting sun, clouds, rain, and wind. She is the chief meteorologist at ABC15 News in Phoenix, so her forecasts mostly call for sunshine. Within this brief window, however, Sullins sometimes manages to go beyond the next five days. Far beyond.

“We know climate change could affect everything about the way we live in the future, from agriculture and tourism to productivity and local business,” she once noted. “But at what cost?”

The answer came from a University of Arizona economist whose work is meant to improve understanding about how climate change may affect markets. “Weather will become more variable,” he replied, “and that will then act to make [gross domestic product] more variable. So we’ll bounce around more, from year to year.”

Your local news forecaster is the face of what the National Weather Service estimates is a $7 billion weather-prediction industry, a largely invisible operation that stretches across some 350 public- and private-sector organizations in the U.S. At its center are the 5,000 employees of the National Weather Service, whose efforts at forecasting generate about $32 billion in annual benefits to American households, according to federal estimates.

Broadcast television still commands enormous attention within the U.S. weather industry, even at a time when the curious can summon the temperature and forecast by pulling a device out of their pockets. But weather apps haven’t digitized weather prediction. Despite the hype about artificial intelligence, it still takes an actual human to predict the weather—and, for millions of people, there’s just no substitute for a photogenic and trustworthy meteorologist.

Two-thirds of 18- to 64-year-olds in the U.S. watch a news broadcast, either on TV or a digital device, at least once a week, according to 2015 research by the market research company SmithGeiger LLC. Nearly 40 percent of people within this wide age group watch broadcast news on daily basis, and the reliable presence of an on-air meteorologist is a huge part of the draw.

“Local TV news wouldn’t exist any more if it weren’t for the weathercasts,” says Ed Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication.

The weatherman or weatherwoman is the only scientist most people ever see. TV meteorologists tend to be inviting, attractive figures who together have earned the trust of millions of people. That’s why the American Meteorological Society has for years encouraged them to embrace their default role as “station scientist.”

It’s difficult to say how climatologists come across and what they look like because few have ever been spotted in the wild. And when climatologists do show up on television, perhaps in a drab C-SPAN broadcast of a congressional hearing, they can be greeted with a partisan hostility that the weather forecaster never faces—even when one fails to foresee a thunderstorm heading for Phoenix. (“They are much more difficult to forecast than, say, a winter storm coming in,” Sullins says.)

Still, public skepticism about climate change is a reality faced by television forecasters, who need to have the broadest appeal possible. Denialism is “an American phenomenon,” says veteran Miami weatherman John Morales, who is now at NBC 6. “This is not something you see around the world.”


2 Responses to “Amber Sullins has a Bully Pulpit on Climate Communication”

  1. I’ve lived in the Phoenix area since 1985, and it’s definitely warmer and drier now. Just this past Friday, May 5, it was actually 108 degrees at 4:30 pm. That broke the old record of 105 by three degrees. Another degree higher than Amber’s 2:12 pm Tweet in your story.

    Thanks to your report, I’ll be watching Amber Sullins much more in the future.

  2. I thought “conservatives” were anti PC. Seems they are only anti PC when applied to their pet ideological obsession. The phrases “climate change” and “global warming” are probably able to provoke a stronger reaction than four letter words and blasphemy, when broadcast to a certain section of the population!

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