The Weather Channel embracing more climate change coverage

Rodney Ho
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (TNS)
Kids play in the Salmon Springs Fountain on June 27, 2021, in Portland, Oregon. The Northwest experienced record-breaking temperatures during a historic heat wave at the end of June. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images/TNS)

The Atlanta-based Weather Channel said it’s committed to tackling climate change with more vigor than it ever has.

In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Nora Zimmett, The Weather Channel’s chief content officer and executive vice president, said they are “doubling down on climate. Climate and weather coverage are completely linked. It’s the most important topic of not just our generation, but generations to come. We have a front seat.”

She said the channel has been addressing the subject for years but not on a regular basis. “We intend to do that now,” she said. “American sentiment only recently caught up with the urgency of the issue. Years ago, our audience didn’t want to hear about it. They are much more interested in it now.”

Zimmett, who joined the station in 2014, said there is a generational shift happening, noting that millennials and Generation Z (those born after 1996) viewers are far more concerned with climate change than baby boomers, reflected in a recent Pew Research survey.

Just as the Pacific Northwest was recently facing a record heat wave, she said, “Our viewers are seeing it on their doorsteps. It’s impacting them in ways never before seen. Industries such as farming are saying they have seen such crazy weather patterns. Many natural disasters are being linked to climate change. The evidence has become overwhelming. Young people are shouting about it on the rooftops.”

Zimmett said coverage will focus on how to make the world better. “We are offering optimistic, positive solutions of how people can make a difference in helping mitigate climate change,” she said. “Our overall tone will set us apart. We’re not giving up. We’re not throwing our arms up and saying all hope is lost. The science has shown that is not the case.”

She said it’s easy for many media outlets to hype fear and “show the globe is burning,” she said. “That’s not the way to inspire or engage viewers.”

The Weather Channel has created an advisory board of outside scientists, doctors and journalists who are helping them come up with fresh ideas on how to cover climate change. They are also planning to do more pieces on environmental justice and profile people of color and unsung heroes making a difference. “We’re really taking a look at the entire environment from a science and an activism perspective,” she said.

The morning show has been retooled and is now called “America’s Morning Headquarters,” with more discussion of climate sustainability. The network is planning a daily show called “Pattrn,” hosted by Stephanie Abrams and Jordan Steele, which will look at the economic costs of climate change. They are also planning a travel series focused on places impacted by climate change.

And a new documentary series, “Frozen Gold,” will feature gold prospectors trying to find precious metals in Greenland, where the melting ice and permafrost is opening fresh opportunities. “It’s a reality show: ‘Survivor’ meets ‘Duck Dynasty’ meets ‘Gold Rush’ with a huge climate umbrella,” Zimmett said.

Many staff meteorologists are going back to school to get masters degrees in climate research. “It’s not because they’re out of date,” she said. “It’s only a recent discipline. This is a full-scale assault on this topic.”

Zimmett said plans to focus on climate change began well before the coronavirus appeared, but the pandemic enabled them to do a special on how climate change makes animal-borne illnesses like COVID-19 more common.

The changes so far have been relatively subtle, and loyal viewers have not rebelled.

"There are always going to be people who don’t enjoy change,” Zimmett said. “We don’t want to alienate them but we also want to make room for new viewers willing to engage with us.”

When Zimmett informed the owner and media mogul Byron Allen about the shift, he told her, “Why didn’t you do this sooner?

“He is the biggest advocate for climate coverage and environmental justice coverage,” she said.

Since Allen’s Entertainment Studios purchased the station for $300 million in 2018 from NBCUniversal, Zimmett has noticed his positive impact.

“Byron rewards good ideas,” she said. “He’s not big on red tape and bureaucracy. This funnels down to every level. If you’re an associate producer with a great idea to shoot a story, you come up with a reasonable budget and schedule, we say, ‘Go do it!’ I’ve worked at places where they say, ‘Stay in your lane.’ Byron fosters an entrepreneurial attitude. It’s a really exciting place to be.”