YPCCC Partnerships: Interview with Climate Central’s Bernadette Woods Placky

Climate Central is an independent group of scientists and communicators who research and report the facts about our changing climate and how it affects people’s lives. Climate Central uses science, big data, and technology to generate thousands of local storylines and compelling visuals that make climate change personal and show what can be done about it. Climate Matters produces free weekly climate reporting materials, both in English and Spanish, localized for 245+ U.S. cities and media markets. Climate Matters currently supports more than 3000 meteorologists and journalists

Nicholas Perez and Alison Thompson from YPCCC’s Partnerships Program interviewed Bernadette Woods Placky to learn more about Climate Central’s communications strategy and partnership with YPCCC. Bernadette serves as Climate Central’s Vice President of Engagement, Chief Meteorologist, and Climate Matters Director. 

Nicholas: Hi Bernadette! Thank you for meeting with us today. Could you introduce yourself and tell us about your current role at Climate Central?

Bernadette: I’m Bernadette Woods Placky, and I am the Vice President of Engagement, Chief Meteorologist, and Climate Matters director at Climate Central. I have been at Climate Central for about 11 years now.

Nicholas: What first motivated you to get into the climate space? How did you find Climate Central and get to where you are now?

Bernadette: My story takes me back to Penn State, where I’m a proud Penn State meteorology alumna. After graduating, I worked in operational forecasting for about 15 years–starting at AccuWeather, then quickly transitioning into television, spending time in Arkansas, Kentucky, and Baltimore, Maryland.  Eleven years ago, I came over to Climate Central. I really liked what the organization was doing, how they were doing it, and the people that were involved–thinking big and trying to drive change. Plus, I really enjoyed diving back into science, and so that was interesting to me. 

As I reflect, there’s a climate connection that carries from forecasting to my current role. When you’re a meteorologist, you really do have a drive to keep people safe and prepared. Weather and big storms excite you, but you also see the damage that they can do. And you can look at weather models and see that risk even before the storms happen. With climate change, we are looking at risk and damage at even greater scales–so it comes back to trying to keep people safe and prepared. 

Alison: Building on that, how is meteorology and your background tied into what you do currently day to day for Climate Central?

Bernadette: In a lot of ways. When I first came over to Climate Central, it was to lead Climate Matters. At the time, we worked with TV meteorologists by helping them to understand more about our changing climate and make the connections in their broadcasting. The program itself has evolved in many ways. It has expanded to support journalists across all media, in addition to others who receive our regular information: educators, NGOs, local officials, researchers, and more. We reach a lot of people who are interested in understanding how climate change is impacting them locally and what can be done about it. 

But it’s more than that. One of the biggest ways people are moved on climate change is by our changing weather, both everyday changes, and our big extremes. In that sense, meteorologists are on the front lines of our changing climate. They can make connections and in really timely ways. 

Climate Central has another great program called Attribution Science, and we work with Yale as one of our partners in addition to World Weather Attribution and GSCC. Through the program, we can analyze individual weather events and weather metrics such as daily temperature, to see how climate change plays a role. So the weather aspect still plays a big part in my day to day life here at Climate Central. 

Nicholas: Weather is a good way to start a climate conversation, and it clearly informs the work of Climate Central. Could you tell us about who your audience is and what your goals are with regards to the climate action you want people to take after engaging with your work?

Bernadette: Climate Matters has a double audience. Our primary audience is the media: meteorologists and journalists. When we design our text and visuals, it’s for the public. But the information is not going to get to the public unless it goes through one of our immediate primary audiences. And we really do consider the primary audience as our partners in this work. Climate Matters has grown and matured because of their partnership. Over the years, we continually ask, listen, and learn from our network: What are they understanding? Where are their questions popping up? How can we help with that? It’s about having that pulse on the evolution of climate knowledge and storytelling.  

Beyond audiences, there are several principles that we follow at Climate Central. 

We always try our best to take a global challenge and break it down to a local conversation while leveraging data, visualizations, and partnerships. When people experience climate change, they don’t experience 1.2 Celsius of warming. They experience a hurricane making landfall in their community or eight straight days of temperatures at 110 degrees or higher, or sweeping, toxic air quality from wildfires. We try to take that global issue and break it down locally.

Another thing is that we translate science. We make sure that the science is explained in clear ways that people can consume. We do scientific research for publications, but a primary driver of our scientific research is for public consumption. 

Lastly, we’re a visual species. We use different visuals to help data and science come to life. It’s all with the goal of supporting storytelling.  

Nicholas: It’s really interesting to hear how it’s a global audience, but it requires working with partners to reach the general public. I also really appreciate how clear your principles are, and they have a lot of connections as well to what YPCCC is doing

Bernadette: Yes! This is why we’re friends and partners with Yale. We think in a lot of the same ways. 

Nicholas: Regarding the partnership between YPCCC and Climate Central, how has Climate Central used our resources or insights to guide its strategic communications or other work?

Bernadette: In all of the work that we do, “knowing your audience” is the golden rule. You have to know what your audience understands or doesn’t understand, where they stand on an issue, what resonates with them at what times and how. This helps you meet them where they are to advance conversations. 

The Yale Climate Opinion Maps, along with the collaborative research with GMU’s Center for Climate Change Communication from Global Warming’s Six Americas going back to 2008, is foundational to our work. Since before day one at Climate Central (I participated in a workshop before I officially started), I’ve had the opportunity to present alongside Ed Maibach at many different conferences. And so I’ve had a front row seat to the evolution of the Six Americas research. And I have to say, for our whole organization, it really grounds our work. 

The other piece –  I also include the information in most of my presentations. We’ve done so many trainings for a range of different stakeholders, and we’ve found that one of the biggest misconceptions about climate change is underestimating people’s interest in the subject. 

Too often, the Dismissive voices get the loudest megaphone, and so there is a misunderstanding that there is more division on climate change than there really is. When people learn that their neighbors are more concerned about climate change than they thought, they are more open to starting climate conversations. 

Nicholas: Shifting gears, could you tell us about what Climate Matters hopes other climate community communicators can learn from its work?

Bernadette: That’s a great question. There are a few ways I think I’m going to answer this.

For other climate communicators, one of the things I hope that they take away is the power of  localizing their work. When you have science-based conversations, and you bring in climate information in timely, localized ways that matter, people are interested. They want to learn, they want to follow up with conversations and questions.

As I talk to other groups about communicating about climate change, I also go through five points:

  1. Know your audience; consider topic, tone, timing 
  2. Meet people where they are at; localize and personalize
  3. Simplify; drop the jargon
  4. Tell a story when you can 
  5. Don’t overthink it! You have science and public opinion on your side. 

The more we learn about climate, it can be exciting to have high-level scientific conversations with other practitioners. At the same time, most people don’t have the time–or the interest– to engage at that level, and we don’t want to leave them behind. And to be clear, it’s not ‘dumbing it down’. We want to build climate IQ. 

Nicholas:  What you said just now about not dumbing down is especially important. Not everyone has time to be a scientist; a lot of people care but have so many other things to engage with. Nonetheless, we can still bring them in.

Bernadette: Yeah, it’s actually really hard to take these types of topics and make them simple, so it shows a lot of skill. One area I do hope for as we move forward with Climate Matters is to help people frame weather as a solution. Wind, solar power, and hydro – this is also weather! We have a weather power tool that we hope to build out a lot more. It’s something meteorologists have been bringing into their forecasts; a wind forecast or solar forecast. It’s still weather and it’s a solution.

Nicholas: What has been your organization’s single most exciting or surprising discovery that you made in communicating or organizing around climate?

Bernadette: We are really proud of the people in our Climate Matters network, doing amazing work. We get most excited watching their storytelling evolve–transforming weathercasts, broadcasting wind and solar forecasts, creatively connecting climate impacts to everyday lives, and helping their audiences understand the rapidly expanding suite of climate solutions. 

Nicholas: How can people get involved with your organization? Are there key roles or ways that people in the climate movement can get involved?

Bernadette: Anyone at all is welcome to sign up for our weekly Climate Matters. All they have to do is go to climatecentral.org/climate-matters. The science, data, and content is packaged primarily for media professionals with additional reporting resources, but the timely information is valuable to anyone interested in learning and communicating more about climate change. 

Nicholas: Finally, I’m curious to hear how your organization and you remain hopeful or inspired in this journey to build public and political will around climate?

Bernadette: It’s tough sometimes. When you care about people and what’s going on, you see all the damage and the distraction, it hurts. But that also means you’re still human. Right? And you think: how do we use this to drive change in the future? How do we use that energy to leverage more impact?

For me, it’s about people–the people we are trying to keep safe and prepared, and the people doing the hard work to advance climate understanding and action. 

There are amazing solutions, transforming society right now. We just have to do more. And we have to do it faster.

Nicholas: Thank you so much, Bernadette for speaking with us!