Newly Elected Eric Sorensen Is a Meteorologist Now Telling Congress About Climate Change

From a story on politico.com by Timothy Cama headlined “The meteorologist telling Congress about climate change”:

Rep. Eric Sorensen brings a rare resume to Congress. The freshman lawmaker, who represents part of the Quad Cities area of Illinois, is, by his own accounting, the first former television meteorologist in Congress in more than four decades. (The last one was Rep. Dale Milford (D-Texas), who left in 1979.)

Sorensen is a member of the Agriculture Committee and the Science, Space and Technology Committee. He represents a very purple district and is being targeted by Republicans in next year’s elections.

As a weatherman, Sorensen worked to incorporate climate change into his forecasts, trying to present information that would be useful to viewers’ daily lives without being political. It was at a time when even acknowledging climate was divisive — something he blames on former Vice President Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth.”

He sat down in his office last month to talk about how meteorology prepared him for Congress, how he navigates climate now and some of his legislative priorities.

What does your experience as a TV weathercaster bring to the various demands of this job?

We haven’t ever had a meteorologist come to Congress from the background of the science, but more importantly than that, the background of the science communication. You know, how does it make sense to everyday people in Midwestern America?

When I was talking about climate on television, I never told anybody that they did anything wrong, or that they had to do something different. Instead, I was just communicating the science. And I didn’t realize that the farmers, they were the ones listening, because they were already being impacted. And immediately, they could understand it.

It seems like some meteorologists are afraid to talk about climate change because it might alienate people. Is that a legitimate fear?

I think for a lot of people it is. For a meteorologist who spent a lot of time in one place, they are the authority for that science. They have to understand that there’s a risk in talking about something that may be perceived as political.

For instance, for me, in order to talk about climate in 2008, I had to go from the news director to the general manager to the CEO. And then I had to figure out when I had to talk about it. And then we went back and looked at the Nielsen ratings, we had to look at the email and snail mail and everything else. We could quantify what was the reaction. And the reaction was not negative. We never splintered the audience. In fact, the audience grew, because no one was talking about it.

After that, I went to weather conventions and I was able to get up on stage in from of 700 meteorologists to say, ‘It does work, you can talk about this.’

In the House, you’re a frontliner — both parties see your district as a potential flip in 2024. What’s that like in daily life?

Thank God that I’ve always worked in competitive television markets. I never worked at a No. 1 affiliate where you could just skate by. We were always trying as hard as we could.

And that’s what this district’s about. I wouldn’t want to be in Congress and be in a different type of district, to be honest with you. Yeah, there’s a lot of stress being in a frontline district. I don’t think I had this much gray hair a year ago.

I don’t want to win another election by just winning Democratic voters. So I want to be able to work with people on the other side. I want to help people understand that we’re working for the people.

The Weather Act is up for reauthorization in the Science Committee. What are you looking for on that?

We’ve got to make sure that we’re weather-ready. It’s not just that when a disaster happens, we have to have the immediate response. We have to have the readiness in front of it. And that’s really what my job was about for all of these years, and especially in my district. It was, are people understanding the science such that they can make a good decision?

People have to be able to put the right science into that equation so that the conclusion is accurate. That was the problem that I had a lot during the pandemic. People were making bad decisions. I can’t fault my neighbor for making bad decisions when they’re having bad data that’s coming in.

How are you using your science communications background in talking with constituents?

I want to make sure people are connected to the right information. We need to figure out how to do that. Because there are too many people making bad decisions.

Part of that is finding different ways to be able to communicate. If I found out that standing on the roof of this building and shouting would do anything for climate, I would probably do it.

Do you miss being a meteorologist?

I will tell you, giving a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives is not much different from speaking in an empty television studio at 4:30 in the morning in Moline, Illinois. No one told me what the weather was going to look like, so I had to be at work at 3 a.m. to figure out, by 4:30, how am I going to tell this story, what am I going to say?

Well luckily, now, in Congress, I have a team of great people that help, how are we going to communicate, what is our objective here? And then I go out there and there’s no one in the room. It’s just like being in the TV studio. I’m just looking at a camera.

The first time I spoke on the floor of the House, I found the camera. My mom is my big critic, my mom told me she didn’t like the tie that I was wearing, it didn’t match. But she said, ‘Eric, you found the camera, and you talked to me.’

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