While watching the evening news the charismatic weathercaster warns that your area should expect a month’s worth of rain in the coming hours. Should you be worried? Is this climate change? But the weather forecaster is smiling, so it’s probably just some weird weather right?

“Some folks say that ‘global weirding’ would be a better description of what’s happening than climate change,” says Vanessa Schweizer, an assistant professor in Waterloo’s Department of Knowledge Integration.

Schweizer, who does research on climate change and how its science gets communicated to the public and decision makers adds: “People trust and rely on the person giving them their weather update. Being on the frontline of extreme weather caused by climate change, weather people have the opportunity to reach massive numbers of viewers and let them know that what’s happening isn’t normal, and it’s something that needs to be addressed.”

Waterloo researcher delivers climate change workshops for weather forecasters

Vanessa SchweizerSchweizer, who co-facilitated a number of workshops with colleagues from George Mason University for the American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association in the U.S., says unfortunately weather forecasters work in competitive markets and are cautious about alienating viewers.

“A lot of them would take an agnostic stance about climate change or maybe even say they were unconvinced it was happening,” says Schweizer.

To draw out participants’ perspectives on climate change, Schweizer and her team used standard conflict resolution techniques to bring about a productive dialogue on why they had concluded what they did, and how they viewed their professional responsibilities as communicators. The goal was to “take the volume down a bit on what had become a passionate disagreement,” Schweizer says.

“Now it looks like attitudes are shifting,” she says. “The most recent survey on weathercasters shows nearly 70 per cent think it’s appropriate to report on the science of climate change to audiences in venues such as on air, during public appearances, or on the web. This may be essential to raise awareness that climate is already changing, and there are serious concerns about more extreme weather in the near future if climate change is not decisively addressed.”

Waterloo leads global project on climate and energy

While weathercasters may have a powerful voice in educating viewers about the reality of climate change, only collective understanding and action can truly confront it. Schweizer’s most recent project, organizing Ontario’s participation in World Wide Views on Climate and Energy, is taking on that very challenge.

The project is the largest-ever global citizen consultation on climate and energy. Beginning at dawn in the Pacific Islands and ending at dusk in the West Coast of the United States on June 6th, 9600 participants worldwide answered identical questions on how climate change relates to them.

Schweizer and her team administered questions and answers from more than 100 local residents who were selected to reflect the demographic diversity of Canada, and shared them around the world.  

80 per cent of Canadians say climate change should be a priority

The sweeping citizen consultation revealed that more than 80 per cent of Canadians asked feel climate change is not a national priority but it should be, compared to nearly 60 per cent of citizens in the other G7 countries.

Canadians in Ontario are also less inclined to “do whatever it takes” to stop climate change. When asked if “the world should take ambitious action, but not whatever it takes,” only 20 per cent of G7 respondents agreed compared to 32 per cent of Canadians in Ontario. 

Canadians in Quebec go in the other direction, where 87 per cent say the world should do whatever it takes, and about 5 per cent say, “not whatever it takes.”

The results will also be presented at the United Nations COP21 climate change negotiations in Paris later this year.

“Canada has a duty to facilitate public participation in discussions about how it will address climate change, both as a party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and as a democracy,” says Schweizer. “However, all too often, the voices of regular people are left out, and it’s important to bring them back in. We heard from Canadians that they expect more than they’re getting from their government on climate action.”