Interview with AMS executive director Keith L. Seitter 

click to enlarge AMS executive director Keith L. Seitter
  • AMS executive director Keith L. Seitter

In October, I wrote to Keith L. Seitter, executive director of the American Meteorological Society, to better understand the circumstances surrounding the release of the organization's statement on climate change, and the role of humans in its creation.

NUVO: Are all meteorologists members of AMS?

Keith L. Seitter: Most, but not all, broadcast meteorologists are AMS members -- certainly more than half.

NUVO: What was the process by which you arrived at this statement, "There is unequivocal evidence that Earth's lower atmosphere, ocean, and land surface are warming; sea level is rising; and snow cover, mountain glaciers, and Arctic sea ice are shrinking. The dominant cause of the warming since the 1950s is human activities."

Seitter: All AMS statements go through a very lengthy and deliberative process before they are approved by the AMS Council, which is the elected governance of the AMS. This particular statement was in preparation for over a year. A team of scientific experts who volunteered for this effort helped draft the statement, and it went through several levels of scientific review, including a 30-day comment period in which all AMS members could provide comments that were considered by the drafting team and the AMS Council prior to the final approval of the text. The statement represents a summary of the current peer-reviewed literature on climate change, and the quote you have above is consistent with, and supported by, that literature.

The position in the AMS statement prior to this one, which had been approved in 2007, was similar in many ways, though perhaps not quite as strongly stated. You can see the text of the 2007 statement in the archive of expired statements the AMS maintains on its website.

Editor's note: The current statement is here.

NUVO: What are your expectations regarding AMS members responding to this statement?

Seitter: The statement represents the official position of the society and is provided as a service to AMS members as well as the general public and policy makers. No response from members is required in any way.

NUVO: According to a 2011 report by the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, only 19 percent of broadcast meteorologists surveyed said climate is changing due to "mostly human causes." Do you have any ideas, surmises or theories on why that's the case?

Seitter: I think it is also important to note that a total of 53 percent of the broadcast meteorologists felt that human influence played an important role in climate change, with 19 percent saying it was mostly human and 34 percent saying it was roughly equal between human and natural causes. Surveys of the complete meteorological community have shown a much higher percentage of respondents saying that recent climate change, especially in the past 50 years, is mostly a result of human influence. That is especially true of meteorologists who are active researchers.

NUVO: What tools exist to help broadcast meteorologists incorporate climate change science into their broadcasts?

Seitter: Climate change issues are always an important component of the AMS conference on broadcast meteorology that occurs each year, and that conference routinely includes sessions on how to include climate change science into their broadcasts. There are also occasional articles in the Bulletin of the AMS (BAMS), which is the society's member publication, geared specifically toward broadcasters.

Besides Earth Gauge, there are a number of resources created by organizations other than the AMS that are targeted at the broadcast meteorology community. These include the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research's COMET program, the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, some initiatives by George Mason University and several others.

The AMS Committee on the Station Scientist (see:ametsoc.org/stationscientist/index.html) provides additional resources across a spectrum of science topics for the broadcast meteorology community.

Serving the public interest?


Paul Douglas is a member of the AMS and attended the convention. He told me he likes that there's "no ambiguity" regarding the statement, and believes that "most television meteorologists would like to do more reporting on this. But I've talked to a lot of these [meteorologists], we had a meeting a couple of weeks ago and, to a person, they all raised their hand and said, 'Yeah I'd love to report on this, but my news director doesn't want me to.':

Douglas says that television news directors believe that talking about climate change is "a turnoff and that it will alienate some percentage of the audience."

Television stations, Douglas reminds us, "get spectrum (the part of the radio frequency spectrum used for broadcasting) for free in this country. They don't pay anything for the spectrum to be able to broadcast their signal, and yet they are supposed to serve the public interest. The only way that they can keep their license is by serving the public interest according to the FCC.

"So by ignoring this topic," he adds, "are they really serving their audience? By ignoring the science, by looking the other way ... I don't know. I think a case could be made that they are not serving the public interest."

Read what local meteorologists have to say about climate change here.

See our coverage of supersized weather here.

Check out meteorologist Paul Douglas's tips for communicating climate change here.

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