public diplomacy

Wacky Weather Woes in a Climate of Volatility

Reporting volatile weather and global climate conditions should consider its public diplomacy implications. Photo source

Reporting volatile weather and global climate conditions should consider its public diplomacy implications. Source

August is usually the month of swimming, surfboards, sand castles, and hiking in the great outdoors, but many of us wake up these days with weather woes and trepidation. Should we pack life preservers for rafting or rescues?

All of us are now well acquainted with weather warnings alerting us to the latest dangers: To date, 17 wildfires along the border of California and Oregon have scorched 180 square miles of land. Meanwhile, reports continue about hurricanes churning in the Atlantic and the Pacific.

As a result, the bills are also mounting. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that in 2013, there were around 17 weather/climate disasters that each exceeded $1 billion in losses across the U.S. Recent reports, including the US government Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, make clear that higher temperatures, rainfall changes, and natural disasters are linked to climate change and things that humans are doing to the planet in this century.

We need to tell people more than just today’s forecast. The World Meteorological Organization reports that 1998, 2005, and 2010 were the warmest years on record globally! Thirteen of the 14 warmest years on record have all occurred in the 21st century. For the US, 2012 was the warmest year on record. For Australia it was 2013. We have to communicate these trends and their relationship to increased greenhouse emissions.

Public diplomacy offers many interesting approaches to weather, including wording and communications as well as monitoring and evaluation:

1. Let’s start by avoiding, at least in this article, the two controversial words: “climate change.” The phrase has become so politically loaded and scientifically debated that it risks eclipsing the bigger issue of bad weather. Those two phenomena are likely related, but mixing them in the same sentence gets people mad. So maybe we can just use another two words: “Mother Nature,” since she seems in charge.

2. We need more weather accountants. It is near impossible to follow the patterns, tracking and numbers of weather incidents. Adding it all up is a mind-numbing exercise. Fortunately, the White House Climate Initiative announced this year is going to do just that: thread together all the government data from NOAA, NASA, the US Geological Survey and other federal agencies.

3. Once we get the math and science right, we need to put it all this volatility into a larger context. That requires good communications. Much of the best analysis of weather lies in highly scientific and technical journals full of jargon. We need to train our science writers to speak in terms we can all understand. Concepts like “polar vortex” and “arctic blast” require stories and characters in addition to footnotes and sources. It would be useful to have national lesson plans both online and in booklet form to explain the history and current weather situation. Imagine getting a Guide to Understanding Weather when you board an airplane or step onto a bus or train. Hey—we have time to read while in motion.

Wacky weather is now seemingly a part of life. So let’s approach it with life skills from basic education to high level analysis. We could get weather coaches and climate counselors, send our kids to meteorological instead of music camps.

Or we can close the blinds, turn off the local news, and play hide and seek with Mother Nature. My guess is, she’ll find us.



About Tara Sonenshine

Tara Sonenshine is a distinguished fellow at The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs. Previously, she served as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, as well as Executive Vice President of the U.S. Institute for Peace.


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