How would you like to wake up one day and find a rat-sized snail eating away at the stucco on your house? Or head to your favorite fishing spot only to find that the fish have all died off? Or open your water bill to discover that it’s jumped astronomically?
These are just a few of the effects of climate change confronting residents of Florida — and South Carolina might not be far behind. A report by South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources demonstrates that climate change is already happening in the state, predicts bigger changes ahead and calls on the state to prepare. But if not for the reporting of Sammy Fretwell at The State, the report would likely never have seen the light of day. Similarly, climate change is also conspicuously absent from your local evening newscasts, where an average weather report might alert you to some of the odd things happening these days — but will rarely explain why.
In South Carolina, few policymakers — or weathercasters, for that matter — take the issue of climate change seriously. That’s largely a reflection of the state’s staunchly conservative political leanings. But it leaves the state far outside the mainstream of accepted science — and well behind the curve in moving to address the changes that are coming, or in some cases already here.
According to an analysis by James Lawrence Powell of the National Science Board, 99.8 percent of the peer-reviewed scientific research of the past 21 years accepts climate change as fact. But the general public, and some policymakers alongside them, are less convinced. Belief in the United States that climate change is happening peaked in 2008 at 61 percent, according to Gallup data analyzed by The Atlantic Wire. Then came a few years of increased skepticism. Recent polls, however, show the public turning ever so slightly toward accepting established science once again. As of March 2013, 54 percent of the American public believed climate change has already started, while just 15 percent believed that it hasn’t and never will.
The thing about reality, though, is that it proceeds regardless of people’s opinions about it. In Florida, a warming climate is bringing exotic species to the state, including 1,000 giant African land snails caught each week in Miami-Dade County. Hypoxia — low oxygen levels in water — is creating dead zones where the water can’t support marine life. As for that water bill — well, that’s happening in Columbia regardless of climate change, but it could get much worse, at least in South Carolina’s coastal areas, as saltwater moves further inward and threatens drinking water supplies.
Some states — even deeply conservative ones — are waking up to the risks of climate change. In Texas, where many state lawmakers are reluctant to acknowledge climate change, legislators nonetheless voted recently to take $2 billion from the state’s rainy day fund to address the state’s long-term drought problem. So, while politicians might not agree on what’s causing the problem, they have at least acknowledged that there is one — and that it needs fixing.
In South Carolina, meanwhile, a small minority of activists and lawmakers is still battling to move public policy toward grappling with scientific reality.
With this year’s Green Issue, we take a look at the issue of climate science as it relates to South Carolina. Corey Hutchins talks to WLTX meteorologist Jim Gandy, an outspoken proponent of educating the public about climate change science. Eva Moore looks at the science and the politics of the Department of Natural Resources report. Also, we offer a calendar of green events and a Sustainability Guide listing organizations involved in efforts to safeguard our state’s natural resources. — Dan Cook
WLTX Chief Meteorologist Educates Viewers on Causes, Effects of Climate Change
By Corey Hutchins
Jim Gandy, the local weather forecaster for the CBS affiliate in Columbia, WLTX, believes humans are causing climate change and isn’t afraid to say it. That’s kind of a big deal in South Carolina, where the political culture doesn’t exactly tend to favor such talk. But Gandy is a numbers guy and a science guy. And the science, he says, is overwhelming on this point.
As the chief meteorologist for WLTX, Gandy does a recurring segment in his newscasts called Climate Matters, in which he educates his viewers on the science of climate change — and the impact it’s having on their daily lives.
Maybe you’ve seen all that yellow pollen covering everything in Columbia lately? Here’s what Gandy had to say in a recent segment about how it relates to a warming planet.
“We’re burning fossil fuels, which is putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year — and the thing is that plants use that carbon dioxide to grow bigger, faster, and to produce more pollen,” he said. He added that it’s only going to get worse.
That a local broadcast meteorologist in Columbia is tackling the science of climate change is significant. In 2010, Columbia Journalism Review pointed out how a surprising number of weathercasters on TV are skeptical of the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is causing the planet to warm. A 2011 George Mason University survey backed that up, showing that most weathercasters “don’t know much about climate science, and many who do are fearful of talking about something so polarizing,” according to National Public Radio.
Photo by Sean Rayford
For his part, Gandy, a mild-mannered Southerner, has heard all the arguments that humans aren’t causing global warming and climate change. Some of those arguments have come from viewers or commenters on his website; others have come from corporate folks in his own company.
“The arguments I’ve heard lead me to believe they don’t know the science,” Gandy says over lunch at Panera Bread, across the street from the WLTX headquarters on Garners Ferry Road. “Given the volume of research that’s been done, you cannot claim that you don’t believe the science, based on the science,” Gandy says. “You can say, ‘I don’t believe it because I am politically opposed to science. You can do that. It’s incorrect, but you can do it.’”
Gandy, who has been in TV for 37 years, grew up in Jacksonville, Fla. He trained as a research meteorologist who had to take the same math requirements as nuclear physicists. He’s lived in Columbia since 1984 and got involved in studying climate science around 2005. It was around that time that he attended a retirement party for a friend, and a group of geologists asked him if he thought global warming was real.
“I told them I thought it was, but I hadn’t really delved into it,” Gandy says. “So I thought maybe it’s time to start reading up on this.”
And read up on it he did.
Since 2009, Gandy has been working with the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University in a partnership that’s led to the Climate Matters segment at his local TV station.
The segments are 90 seconds long and have been featured in his newscasts with increasing frequency since 2010. WLTX has a Climate Matters page on its website, and Gandy supplements it with his own weather climate blog.
The origin story for Climate Matters goes like this: In 2008 he was on a subcommittee of the broadcast board of the American Meteorological Society where he was trying to increase science literacy. Not long after, Joe Witty, a Washington, D.C.-based meteorologist, was looking for funding at GMU’s Center for Climate Change Communication. They needed a media partner and were looking for an adviser. The job caught Gandy’s eye and he applied for it. But a meteorologist friend from Alabama beat him to it.
But the GMU folks offered Gandy something else — they wanted him to be the test case for their research.
Gandy jumped at the opportunity, and told them why he’d be a good candidate here in Columbia as a local broadcast meteorologist.
“Basically my argument was, ‘We’re a medium-sized market; we’re in a conservative state,’” he says. “I think I used the argument, ‘I don’t live in a red state, I live in a dark red state, and if you can teach anybody about climate change here then you can teach it anywhere,’ and that’s how I got started.”
Station management at WLTX supported the project, and they were off to the races. In November 2009, Gandy met with the guys at GMU and a group called Climate Central, which creates the graphics he uses in his TV spots. Together, the team mapped out a year’s worth of Climate Matters segments.
But that wasn’t all.
The Center for Climate Change Communication at GMU surveyed more than 800 TV news viewers in the Columbia market before and after the first year Gandy aired his Climate Matters segments. A paper on the study is currently under review at the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.
What did the yearlong study find?
“The basic conclusions were that viewers of WLTX held views that were more consistent with climate science and they were more likely to than viewers at the competing TV stations,” Gandy says.
They also found a significant shift in viewership.
“In the survey of the non-WLTX viewers in the pre-survey, 59 percent of those became WLTX viewers in the post-survey,” he says. “Of the WLTX viewers, 7 percent became non-WLTX viewers in the post-survey. There was a shift of about 50 percent. That is huge. And it was a real shock to me.”
Certainly the reason for such a shift has many variables and wasn’t strictly because of Climate Matters. There are plenty of reasons, such as CBS programming and others.
“But here’s the one thing that you can say without any qualification,” Gandy says. “Climate Matters did not drive people away. Which is an argument that some TV stations have used: We don’t want to offend the viewer.”
Gandy isn’t halfway through his sandwich when an elderly woman stops by his table.
“Mr. Gandy, you’re my favorite weather person,” she says. “I tell everybody that you do the best job out of anybody in this town. In this state. You ready for this big storm?”
Gandy tells her he’s been keeping an eye on it and says it might not be as bad as others are saying.
He’s a popular guy. And the pushback he might have expected from Climate Matters wasn’t all that harsh, from inside his office or out.
“The station’s been pretty good; they’ve allowed me to do it; they haven’t given me any grief,” he says. “My general manager did share with me that one day one person did call and told him that he needed to fire me.”
“I’m still working,” he adds.
While Gandy’s Climate Matters segments have done a good job educating the public about the science of climate change, he said one thing he’s yet to do is talk about solutions. It’s something he’s still trying to figure out. He likes a market-based, free enterprise approach put forward by former South Carolina Republican Congressman Bob Inglis. (Inglis lost his Upstate seat to a Tea Party challenger in 2010 in part because of his views on climate change.)
Since being out of Congress, Inglis has established an Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason where he’s been trying to convince other conservatives that climate change is real and there are ways to deal with it that are in line with conservative principles. It starts with abolishing all fuel subsidies to create true competition while introducing a structured carbon tax.
Gandy says it’s the most viable plan he’s seen so far.
“Anytime that you can devise a solution where somebody is going to make money other than the politicians, that in the private sector you’re going to make money if you do something, than you’re going to get the fastest results,” he says. “Government mandating what’s going to happen probably is only going to be partially successful at best.”
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