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How A Meteorologist Does His Job When Climate Change Is Politicized

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Tomorrow, the U.N.'s Panel on Climate Change will release its most comprehensive report to date on global warming. But we don't need to wait to feel the effects of climate change. Between record-breaking heat, storms and droughts, Americans are already dealing with the immediate and alarming consequences of a warming planet. And that is changing what it means to be a meteorologist. They've always been the people we count on to keep us safe. But increasingly, they're also charged with guiding us through the messy, scary, highly politicized science around climate change.

We wanted to get a view from inside this storm, so to speak, so we've turned to meteorologist Matthew Cappucci. He is the weather guy at the Fox 5 station here in D.C. and a contributor to member station WAMU and The Washington Post. Welcome to the program.

MATTHEW CAPPUCCI: Hi. Thanks so much for having me.

MCCAMMON: So, Matthew, as we mentioned, this has already been a record-breaking summer on many levels. Now we're getting predictions that we are heading into an above-average hurricane season with up to 21 major storms. Can you put this into context for us, and especially, what's your sense of how much climate change is an issue here?

CAPPUCCI: I think the biggest thing we need to remember when we talk climate change is that an increase in air temperature reflects an increase in the air's ability to hold water. And that's the biggest player when it comes to the effects that we feel in terms of the weather. So out west in California, for example, we're talking record heat and record fires. Out there, there's not much moisture. So a warming world will actually suck moisture out of the ground, make it drier, make it hotter and lead to more wildfires.

On the East Coast, where there is moisture - near the Gulf of Mexico, for example - that means more moisture in the air for these hurricanes to work with. And so you can have the same effect, the same warming temperatures lead to drought in one area and increased flooding in another area. So it really is significant in how the warming world is affecting us and ultimately comes down to precipitation extremes. That's the biggie.

MCCAMMON: Of course, your job as a weather guy, so to speak, is to talk about local forecasts. How well do you think audiences understand the way that what is happening locally is tied to these larger global trends?

CAPPUCCI: I think context is everything. I did a story a couple of years ago on Houston. You know, there are a lot of folks in Houston who have differing opinions on climate change. But here's the thing. In Houston, the increase in air temperature has led to about a 10 to 15% increase in annual precipitation. Now they have about six to eight inches more of rainfall each year than they did back in 1970, which is the equivalent of about 45 extra days of precipitation every single year. And so suddenly, someone who might have been kind of hesitant as to how a big global weather pattern could affect them suddenly has a way to think, hey, I've seen flooding in Houston before. It's made more likely thanks to climate change. And so it becomes much more real to them. So it really depends where I'm forecasting, with whom I'm communicating. But trying to get the effects on a local level to show them how it's actually affecting their daily life is really the biggest hurdle.

MCCAMMON: Do you think that your profession, local meteorologists, are doing enough to help explain why what's happening locally is happening?

CAPPUCCI: I don't, to be honest. And I think part of it is that in many regions of the country, people are tied down based on sort of the political climate around climate change. I think that there are meteorologists who are starting to latch on to really communicating climate change. And there are many great organizations out there like Climate Central, for example, that gives us as broadcast meteorologists statistics and graphics that we can use on air. I think that's vitally important because a television meteorologist is usually the only degreed scientist that a member of the public interacts with on a daily basis. And so if we can be that trusted messenger who is conversing with somebody every day in their living room, then we can have that conversation in a way that they might be more receptive to than hearing it from other sources.

MCCAMMON: I want to ask you a question, Matthew, that is admittedly a little bit outside your wheelhouse. But as you're talking about politicization of science, I think, of course, about COVID-19 and the science around COVID and the vaccines. And of course, that's a different issue from climate change, but I think one thread that's similar is a distrust in science, a distrust in institutions and a lot of misinformation that is sort of muddying the waters and making it hard for policymakers to take action that's really urgent. As you've watched that unfold, based on what you do and your job as someone whose job it is to look at science and communicate it to the public in a very understandable way, is there anything that you see and go, I'd do that differently?

CAPPUCCI: I think the biggest thing is trying to make people feel smart. And I think so often, we see people who are trying to teach science, who are trying to get really important information out to the public, either completely unable to communicate science to begin with and talk in, you know, a PhD level or sort of babying the audience and really not giving them credit. And that kind of turns off the audience no matter how you slice it. I want to engage in an educated conversation with the audience, figure out where they are, teach them something new. And once you make somebody feel like they know a little bit, they're much more interested in paying attention to learn a little bit more.

MCCAMMON: Climate change is obviously a heavy subject, but I'm wondering what makes you excited about weather. What made you want to go into this field?

CAPPUCCI: I love the fact that every day I can do what I love. I can look up at the sky, see something amazing, and no two days are the same. There's always something new that I'm learning, something new that I'm seeing, something new that I'm getting to witness. And I've seen things in my short 23 years most people wouldn't ever imagine getting to see. I flew beneath the Northern Lights early this year. I skydived. I chased seven tornadoes. I've gotten softball-sized hail. I've seen multiple total solar eclipses. And I love the fact that no matter how good I get at forecasting, there will be surprises. There will be something new. And I think that's one of the biggest messages here, is that it's really amazing out there. If people would put down the phones, occasionally look up, I think they'd be really amazed by what they saw. And I think it's important to remember, too, that we all share the same sky. And that's kind of the bottom line of this.

MCCAMMON: That was Matthew Cappucci, meteorologist for The Washington Post and member station WAMU. Thanks so much for your time.

CAPPUCCI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.