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Scientist in focus – meteorologist and climate communicator Paul Huttner

Posted on 21 August 2014 by John Abraham

Meteorologists have the tools to clearly understand how humans are affecting the Earth’s climate. For folks who study weather every day, the changes they’ve seen defy natural explanation. But most meteorologists have to balance their very limited airtime and their reporting obligations with a desire to convey the reality of climate change.

It’s very rare that a meteorologist, let alone a major media organization, take time to bring in-depth discussions to their listeners. But, just this has happened approximately a year ago at Minnesota Public Radio, the largest public radio enterprise in the United States with their star meteorologist Paul Huttner and his deeply knowledgeable host Kerri Miller. This unique venture (a weekly climate show CLIMATE CAST and a weather and climate blog UPDRAFT) and talented team is setting the standard for climate reporting in the United States.

In barely a year, their guest list has included Kevin Trenberth, Ben Santer, Jennifer Francis, Gary Yohe, Anthony Leiserowitz, Steve Vavrus, and Ralph Keeling among others. The depth and reach of Climate Cast have motivated my selection of Paul as my latest Scientist in Focus.

As with most of us, Paul can trace his climate trajectory to his lived experiences. Almost 20 years ago, he covered the infamous Chicago heat wave. That event, which killed approximately 750 citizens, opened his eyes to the impacts of extreme weather events.

He later lived in Arizona, a southern desert-like state. There he noticed that droughts were leading to damaging wildfires that were destroying long-lived mountain forests. Fortunately, Paul Huttner was able to learn from Jonathan Overpeck, Andrew Comrie, and Malcolm Hughes, whose collective expertise in drought, health, and paleoclimate gave Paul a valuable lens through which to view his own observations.

Paul Huttner deepened his study of climate and became one of the few short-term weather forecasters who also understood longer term changes and their connections. A leader among his peers, Paul has gained a reputation by connecting the dots. That old adage of, “we cannot say this event is caused by human emissions” has become “what we are seeing is unusual and is consistent with predictions… all weather is now being impacted by humans.”

Among the things that stand out for Paul are changes to atmospheric circulation, manifested by weather in the middle USA that drunkenly swings from extreme wet to extreme dry, from extreme hot to cold. These events have pushed little Minnesota into the top three list of states for catastrophic insurance losses from extreme weather in three of the last seven years. But Paul doesn’t just see extremes in his region, he also points to observations in other parts of the country and the world.

What makes Paul a perfect choice for my second Scientist in Focus is that his accomplishments have been acknowledged by his peers, who are well-known and respected in their own right. University of Minnesota Professor Mark Seeley told me,

Aside from scientific knowledge, Paul is blessed with the gift of communicating valuable information through stories and analogues. He is highly regarded for his ability to talk about the contentious issue of climate change by framing it in historical and consequential contexts thereby encouraging people to see the impacts on both our natural resources and societal infrastructure.

In fact, this focus on the impacts of climate change and our need to simultaneously mitigate and adapt has put Paul at the vanguard of communication. He uses terms like “hidden adaptation tax” to articulate the reality that we are already spending resources to prepare ourselves for tomorrow’s weather.

This articulation has captured the attention of an elite and discerning crowd. Bud Ward, editor of the Yale Climate Connections, and one of the few go-to climate communicators told me,

Paul Huttner’s innovative Climate Cast program sets a high bar for public radio stations across the U.S. He has an uncanny ability to make the timely timeless, by fitting today’s breaking weather developments into the longer-range climate, and climate change, context. That he does so consistent with the world’s most authoritative scientific findings and evidence — and yet easily digestible by an engaged but non-expert audience — makes it all the more valuable to his audience. If only public radio audiences in other states had comparable access to such authoritative reporting and analysis on a regular basis

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Comments 1 to 1:

  1. I was just listening to Paul and Kerri broadcasting this excellent program from the first day of the Minnesota State Fair. I second all of John's praise for the program. I hope they expand it.

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