How weather became the next big media battleground

In an era of non-stop climate calamity, media outlets are making a grab for viewer attention.

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Must-See TV
ByJake Bittle

“Everybody always talks about the weather, but nobody ever seems to do anything about it” — so goes a famous quip often misattributed to Mark Twain. It’s a phrase that must have been amusing when it first circulated in the early 19th century, but today it just sounds like a grim statement of fact. Everyone still talks about the weather, but for different reasons — because the weather is scary, because it is unpredictable, because it is submerging our highways and drying up our rivers and burning down our towns — but no one is doing anything about it, because we’re the ones who made it this way. And we’re making it worse with every passing day.

It sounds obvious, but the main way we experience climate change is via the weather — the million-acre wildfires egged on by extreme heat and wind, the flash floods pouring through the streets, the monster hurricanes that swirl up through the Gulf of Mexico — and the main way we experience the weather in the 21st century is through the media. Newscasters in waist-high water and horizontal rain; viral tweets of tornados, submerged subway stations, and cars floating down flooded highways; terrifying citywide text alerts warning of apocalyptic storm systems. It’s no longer enough just to look outside. We’ve got to watch disaster unfold, and then tweet about it too.

In an era of non-stop climate calamity, media outlets are rushing to capitalize on our captive eyeballs. Television stations, digital media empires, social media platforms, and independent newsletters are all betting that new programming specifically covering these climate disasters will pay off — even if not all of them actually make explicit connections between weather and climate change. If these ventures succeed, it could portend a larger shift in the media industry, one that could lead television networks and major news providers to see climate change as good for business.

Weather is not a new phenomenon, of course, and neither is media coverage of the weather. When the British admiral Robert FitzRoy began to publish the first modern weather forecasts in the 1860s, they quickly became a nationwide sensation, allowing ladies to plan their outfits and horse gamblers to place their bets. When television took over the American household a century later, weather television was not far behind. The week-ahead forecast provided an essential digestive aid for your average 30-minute news broadcast — man stabbed, gas pipe explodes, but sunny tomorrow! — and the gruesome images that emerged from disasters like Hurricane Katrina made weather an essential news story.

The Weather Channel’s first slogan was “We Take the Weather Seriously, But Not Ourselves.” Its most recent promotional tagline is “Trust In Us To Be There.”

All this paved the way for a 24-hour news channel devoted solely to coverage of the elements. The Weather Channel launched in 1980, the project of a meteorologist named John Coleman and a Virginia media mogul named Frank Batten, who noticed that readers of the Norfolk newspaper The Daily Pilot cited weather coverage as the primary reason they subscribed. The broadcast was all weather, all the time, with up-to-the-moment data sourced from the National Weather Service and local forecasts blasted out every 10 minutes.” Later, the channel added live coverage of hurricanes and full-length documentaries about history’s greatest weather disasters. Branding evolved from geeky to grave: The network’s first slogan was “We Take the Weather Seriously, But Not Ourselves.” Its most recent promotional tagline is “Trust In Us To Be There.”

Today, the Weather Channel is launching a few new projects to get in on the climate media game. This expansion is the project of Byron Allen, a comedian-turned-entertainment mogul who bought the channel for around $300 million in 2018. Allen told the Television Critics Association earlier this year that his intention in buying The Weather Channel was to bring climate change to the forefront of weather coverage.

As of this summer, the channel’s pivot was only half complete. There’s a subscription streaming service in the works called Weather Channel Plus, but that won’t launch until later this year. Back in 2018 the company launched Pattrn, a science-focused vertical that highlights climate connections, but its wall-to-wall coverage of Hurricane Ida in August spent far more time showing star meteorologist Jim Cantore get blown around New Orleans than it did explaining how climate change intensifies major storms. (I would know, because I watched the channel for 12 hours while waiting out the storm in Louisiana.)

Weather coverage has become more “important than ever before, because of what’s happened with climate change, with global warming,” Allen said just days after the Texas ice storm, adding that he had instructed the channel’s meteorologists to be explicit on air about the connections between global warming and extreme weather. That might not sound revolutionary, but it represents a real shift from the station’s origins: John Coleman, the meteorologist who founded the channel in the 1980s, went on to become an ardent climate denier.

Allen further framed weather media as a life-or-death service: “We have to inform folks so we can help save their lives,” he told the Television Critics Association. The Weather Channel has yet to say what channels and programs will be available on Weather Channel Plus, but it seems like a fair bet that much of the content will be climate-related. And while Allen may profess purely altruistic intentions, the reality is that by making explicit connections between weather and climate change, his effort will tilt toward the political, raising awareness of the need to eliminate fossil fuels and of the urgency of the climate crisis.

“Systemic racism, economic inequality — that’s how people experience the weather.”

This is also the thinking behind Currently, an online media venture founded by the Twitter-famous meteorologist Eric Holthaus, who gained prominence on the social network for his persistent and eloquent brand of climate alarmism. Holthaus has described Currently as “a weather service for the climate emergency,” one that can not only keep people informed about conditions in their area, but can also help us “re-discover how connected we all are.”

Currently plans to launch with two distinct products, Holthaus tells Mic. The first is a text-message service that will allow paid subscribers to chat with forecasters and climate experts. In many cases, the meteorologist on the other end will be a real human being — Holthaus says that he himself plans to man the phones at the start — but the site will also blast out automated responses that provide basic information about the climate science behind heat waves and wildfires.

The idea behind the text service, Holthaus says, is not only to build an “interactive weather service that’s built for the era that we’re in right now,” but also to create a space for climate-conscious people to discuss and cope with major weather events. “When there’s a big weather event, people are out talking to their neighbors, helping each other out, getting through it,” Holthaus says. “That’s the kind of community we’re trying to build.”

The outlet’s second product will be a Substack-esque suite of local weather newsletters powered by the Twitter-owned Revue newsletter service. There are a dozen such newsletters so far and counting, each one headed up by a meteorologist or writer. The early editions have combined hundred-word weather forecasts with long-term perspectives on climate change and briefs on issues like Indigenous land rights. Holthaus says that one subscriber told him they were tired of being “gaslit” by how the mainstream media talks about weather. “Systemic racism, economic inequality — that’s how people experience the weather,” Holthaus says.

“I’m trying to find a way to write the weather in a way that’s still informative, but a little bit more interesting and offbeat and ties into infrastructure connections whenever I can,” says Renee Reizman, an artist and writer who is writing the Los Angeles edition of Currently’s newsletter. She’s experimenting with flashes of poetry and personal experience, hoping to build the kind of connection with her readers that local TV weathermen seem to have with their viewers.

When Holthaus launched Currently, he framed it in lifesaving terms similar to Allen’s. When he tweets out information about disasters, he says, "People say, ‘You literally saved our life, when there wasn't clear information reaching them from federal authorities.’" The point is not so much to inform people about the weather as it is to teach them how to think about the weather, placing a heat wave or summer storm in the context of colonialism and extractive capitalism.

On the other side of the spectrum is Fox News, which plans to launch a streaming-only outlet called Fox Weather later this year. It remains to be seen how Fox News’s weather venture will approach the question of climate change. The network’s news anchors have continued to dabble in par-for-the-course climate denial in recent years, also going out of their way to poke fun at the Green New Deal and President Biden’s clean-energy commitments. But it’s hard to imagine that opposition to climate change will be the core appeal of the new weather service. The initial branding for the effort (an “innovative platform to deliver critical coverage to an incredibly underserved market”) as well as the network’s efforts to poach meteorologists from The Weather Channel and other outlets suggest that Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of Fox News’s parent company, understands the appeal of traditional weather coverage.

Even so, not making any kind of connection between extreme weather and climate change is itself a form of climate denial. Independent climate journalist Emily Atkin has called out numerous mainstream media outlets for giving mere lip service to climate science when they report on extreme weather events like heat waves and droughts. Atkin argues that it’s journalistic malpractice to cover such events without saying up front that climate change is behind (many of) them, and she has a point. If we don’t recognize the early consequences of the climate crisis for what they are, we’ll never even begin to generate the kind of social pressure that will force a transition away from fossil fuels.

Television networks and major news providers could see climate change as good for business.

“Linking climate change to weather is perhaps one of the most important ways to increase personal relevance of climate change and make people realize that this is something that's impacting them,” Lauren Feldman, a professor of journalism media studies at Rutgers who has examined cable news coverage of climate issues, tells Mic. “The more information [people see] about impacts and threats, the more fearful and concerned people will be about climate change. In our research, that fear can be motivating.” Feldman adds, however, that news outlets need to combine coverage of climate impacts with coverage of solutions and potential actions, or else risk alienating viewers altogether.

In one sense, the new weather wars can be viewed as a battle over how we think about climate change. On one side you have people like Allen and Holthaus beating the alarmist drum, and on the other side you have Fox News lulling viewers back into the sleepy assumption that weather is just weather.

In another sense, though, all these outlets are trying to do the same thing. They’re responding to consumer interest in the visible effects of climate change. Some of these outlets will couch that information in political or scientific terms, and others will just focus on the destruction. But the base appeal will be the same.

It would be too much to say that these outlets seek to profit off of climate change, considering a few of them have a sincere commitment to stopping it. But it’s clear that the business model of these outlets bets that climate change will continue. Given that people have always been fascinated and terrified by the weather, and the weather has almost never been worse than it is now, it’s a good gamble.

But there’s a strange feedback loop here too. When a media company orients itself to meet viewer demand, it also stakes its survival on the assumption that the demand will continue. Climate change will certainly be the biggest story of the next few decades, and it’s only natural that media companies will want to capitalize on that story, the same way they would on a presidential election or an economic meltdown. And if the coverage they produce helps raise awareness of climate change, you could argue that these new outlets will be net positive. Still, it’s hard not to think that we would all be better off if this kind of venture were a losing bet.