Why Are So Many TV Meteorologists and Weathercasters Climate ‘Skeptics’?

On Air Photo

All three staff meteorologists at KLTV, the ABC affiliate broadcasting to the Tyler-Longview-Jacksonville area of Northeast Texas, joined forces last November to deliver an on-air rebuttal of the idea that humans are changing the earth’s climate.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, representing the work of hundreds of scientists from 130 countries, had declared eight months earlier that warming of the atmosphere was “unequivocal” and that greenhouse gases from human activities were “very likely” the cause of most of the warming since the mid-20th century.

The three KLTV weathercasters – appearing in a Nov. 8 story by a station news reporter – let it be known, however, that they were unconvinced.

Meteorologist Grant Dade: “Is the Earth warming? Yes, I think it is. But is man causing that? No. It’s a simple climate cycle our climate goes through over thousands of years.”

One of his KLTV colleagues said Earth “will not be warming anymore” in 20 to 30 years. The station’s third weathercaster suggested that increased attention to manmade climate change was being driven by scientists who want “grant money.”

Such skeptical pronouncements are not confined to broadcast meteorologists working in smaller media markets. Indeed, they appear to many to be fairly common among TV meteorologists and weathercasters, more the rule than the exception.

John Coleman, founder of The Weather Channel and now a weathercaster for San Diego’s independent KUSI, argues forcefully (pdf) that manmade global warming is “the greatest scam in history” – a quote that was included in the KLTV story, with no countering viewpoints offered. Active in a recent Heartland Institute “skeptic’s conference” on climate change in New York City, Coleman is one of the most highly visible weathercasters championing the views of climate skeptics.

Neil Frank, the 25-year director of the National Hurricane Center, recently retired after 21 years as chief meteorologist at Houston’s CBS affiliate, KHOU, where he sometimes made skeptical remarks about anthropogenic climate change. Frank in 2006 told The Washington Post that it is “a hoax” and that greenhouse emissions actually may help what he called “a carbon dioxide-starved world.”

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported in May that despite some broadcast meteorologists’ belief that long term climate change is not their area of expertise, Minneapolis forecasters are still speaking out on the issue and “most of them are landing on the side of the skeptics.”

Pending Surveys May Shed Light

At a time when most climate scientists – as reflected in the IPCC’s 2007 reports – express growing certainty that Earth is warming, that humans are largely responsible, and that consequences may be severe, why do so many television weathercasters appear to think otherwise?

“It does seem that a larger proportion of broadcast meteorologists are climate change skeptics than is the case with meteorologists as a whole, but we really don’t know what either percentage really is, and if it is true, we certainly don’t know why,” said Ronald McPherson, executive director emeritus of the American Meteorological Society (AMS).

If some large percentage of broadcast weathercasters are indeed skeptics, McPherson said in a phone interview that he suspects there are probably multiple reasons.

AMS Photo

More light is expected to be shed on those factors by two separate surveys of broadcast meteorologists’ attitudes on climate change, which have been conducted recently. Results of both are scheduled to be presented at the AMS 36th Conference on Broadcast Meteorology, June 25-29 in Denver.

One survey was carried out by Kris Wilson of the Emory University Journalism Program for the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF), which collaborates with the AMS Station Scientist effort. Station Scientist promotes “the notion of regarding broadcast meteorologists as the ‘station scientists,’ and equipping them to cover a broader range of science topics for their station, in addition to tomorrow’s weather.”

“We feel working broadcast meteorologists present a unique opportunity as untapped messengers” who can help elevate public understanding of environmental issues, said Deborah Sliter, NEEF vice president for programs, in a phone interview.

The NEEF survey was commissioned to help the foundation decide how to organize and present information in an interactive online course on climate change that it is developing for AMS. This course will be added to a list of such professional development courses that broadcast meteorologists can take to earn credits for AMS certification programs.

The climate course will help weathercasters answer questions directed to them about whether a particular weather event is linked to climate change, Sliter said.

“Because so many of them have no background in climate science – as they do in meteorology and atmospheric sciences – it will give them information to talk about the issues, if they choose,” she said.

The second survey is an individual effort by Sean Sublette, a meteorologist for WSET, the ABC affiliate in Lynchburg, Va.

“It’s just me, asking what my peers think,” he said, adding that he hopes his findings will complement the results of Wilson’s NEEF-sponsored survey.

Sublette said he has become concerned about polarization occurring over the issue of climate change.

“There has not been enough good, general discussion between broadcast meteorologists and climatologists,” he said. “I hope this [survey] can put things out in the open.”

Sublette said some broadcast meteorologists – many of whom “don’t like being told what to think” – were not satisfied by answers to some of their questions when climatologists presented data at last year’s AMS Annual Meeting in San Antonio.

The discussion about human causation of climate change between people in the two fields has been “devolving into ‘I don’t see it happening at all’ versus ‘You’re crazy if you don’t think it’s happening,’” he said.

Broadcast meteorologists are so busy disseminating information about near-term weather conditions – now on multiple platforms – that they simply don’t have much time to keep up with scientific developments related to longer-term climate conditions, he said.

“Longer-term climate science is still a relatively new field. It’s very difficult for each side to understand the other because we’re not playing in each other’s yard very much. Still, I think there’s more agreement than is widely seen by the general public.”

AMS Position Consistent with IPCC, National Academy

A February 2007 AMS formal statement on climate change is “consistent with the vast weight of current scientific understanding as expressed in assessments and reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U. S. National Academy of Sciences, and the U. S. Climate Change Science Program,” according to the group.

Despite uncertainties, the AMS statement says, “there is adequate evidence from observations and interpretations of climate simulations to conclude that the atmosphere, ocean, and land surface are warming; that humans have significantly contributed to this change; and that further climate change will continue to have important impacts on human societies, on economies, on ecosystems, and on wildlife through the 21st century and beyond.”

With regard to policy decisions, the formal AMS statement says, “Prudence dictates extreme care in managing our relationship with the only planet known to be capable of sustaining human life.”

Last September, in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, two prominent broadcast meteorologists and AMS leaders published a guest editorial (pdf), “Communicating Global Climate Change to the Public and Clients.” In it, they criticized some of their fellow weathercasters who have been speaking out skeptically about anthropogenic global warming:

“Increasing numbers of broadcast meteorologists, to whom the public looks for information and guidance on climate change and global warming, are not offering scientific information but rather, all too often, nonscientific personal opinions in the media, including personal blogs. Alarmingly, many weathercasters and certified broadcast meteorologists dismiss, in most cases without any solid scientific arguments, the conclusions of the National Research Council (NRC), Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and other peer-reviewed research.”

The editorial’s two co-authors were Bob Ryan, AMS past president and chief meteorologist for Washington, D.C.’s NBC-owned WRC, and John Toohey-Morales, AMS commissioner on professional affairs and chief meteorologist of NBC Telemundo’s WSCV in Miami.

In a phone interview with the Yale Forum, Ryan said he thinks many “naysayers” about the idea of manmade climate change among broadcast weather forecasters “are coming from a perspective of the policy first – or they’re against it because they think it will hurt the economy, so how can I set out to punch holes in the theory – rather than scientifically testing a theory.”

In certain cases, skeptical weathercasters are “putting their own personal views – sometimes even fundamentalist religious beliefs – first, and then looking at climate change from the standpoint of preconceived things they believe in,” he said.

The Denver AMS meeting for broadcast meteorologists will involve interaction with climate scientists at the nearby National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, whose work has been influential in the conclusions of the IPCC and other bodies. The meeting, Ryan said, will afford a valuable opportunity “for those who are the real naysayers to ask some questions and hear the responses.”

He said he thinks a number of the weathercasters making skeptical pronouncements about climate change have no academic training or degrees in meteorology, yet many of them – or their stations or supervisors – promote them as “meteorologists” because of ratings pressures.

(In an earlier survey of 217 television weathercasters by Wilson, 54 percent said their highest degree was in “meteorology/atmospheric science.” Ten percent said it was in other sciences, and five percent said a combination of journalism and science.)

Disdain All Around, but Nobody ‘Free of Sin’

At Penn State University, one of the nation’s leading academic institutions educating students for careers as broadcast meteorologists, senior meteorology lecturer Paul Knight said in a phone interview that lectures address subjects including the IPCC and long-range climate projections.

The disagreements between television weathercasters and climate scientists involve “a jurisdictional war,” and “there’s nobody free of sin in this matter,” Knight said. “I’m seeing a row here, but it’s not a bad row.”

On one side, there seems to be “a disdain in the orthodox scientific research community for those who are not smart enough to get a Ph.D. or do research, and instead go into the fluff of television and just forecast the weather,” he said.

On the other side, “there’s a certain amount of disdain from television meteorologists who are predicting the weather for those who pontificate about what their [climate] models show,” he added.

Knight summed up his own view of climate change this way: “There’s no question that warming is going on. To say it’s a hoax is to deny the data. To say it’s all human-caused is foolish, too.”

Common sense suggests that both factors are in play, he added. “Then the question is, to what degree? How do we differentiate? The more that folks are willing to admit that, we’ll get to a good policy decision and there will be less polarization.”

One prominent weathercaster still undecided about the biggest question about climate change – substantially human-caused or not? – is Gene Norman of KHOU in Houston, who said he looks forward to the Denver conference as an opportunity to learn more about the subject.

Norman, who replaced Frank recently as chief meteorologist at KHOU, was chair of the AMS Board of Broadcast Meteorology last year, overseeing the AMS certification process among other duties. Immediately before joining the Houston station, he was chief meteorologist at Atlanta’s WGCL, and before that he had spent eight years with NASA developing weather-monitoring technology for the space shuttle.

“My bottom line [about climate change] is I think something is happening,” he said. “Is it human activity? I don’t know. I need to get better educated.”

Norman, like others, said a good part of the skepticism among weathercasters stems from the reactions their questions have elicited in the past.

“Quite a few on television around the country are skeptical only because they feel they have asked questions and raised issues and been told to be quiet, this is the truth,” he said.

Skepticism is reinforced “because we know things change that don’t necessarily have to do with global warming. We know certain sensors have been moved, which has become a politicized issue,” Norman said.

“It’s difficult to communicate about climate to the public,” he said. “To purely say it’s human beings causing all this trouble, a lot of us wonder. We just wonder.”

Bill Dawson

Bill Dawson is an independent journalist who edits Texas Climate News, an online magazine published by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Houston Advanced Research Center. He was previously environment writer for the Houston Chronicle.
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