Why don’t TV weathermen believe in climate change?

Columbia journalism review logo The Columbia Journalism Review takes an inside look at why most weatherman are so adamant about not only not believing in climate change, but also in thinking that it is a scam. The article also analyzes the impact that both prominent and local weathermen have on the public's view or knowledge of climate change despite the fact that they're not typically scientists.

Posted January 2010
By Charles Homans, The Columbia Journalism Review

The small makeup room off the main floor
of KUSI’s studios, in a suburban canyon on the north end of San Diego,
has seen better days. The carpet is stained; the couch sags. John
Coleman, KUSI’s weatherman, pulls off the brown sweatshirt he has been
wearing over his shirt and tie all day and appraises himself in the
mirror, smoothing back his white hair and opening a makeup kit. “I kid
that I have to use a trowel, to fill the crevasses of age,” he says,
swiping powder under one eye and then the other. “People have tried to
convince me to use more advanced makeup, but I don’t. I don’t try to
fool anyone.”

Coleman is seventy-five years old, and looks it, which is refreshing
in the Dorian Gray-like environs of television news. He refers to his
position at KUSI, a modestly eccentric independent station in San Diego
whose evening newscast usually runs fifth out of five in the local
market, as his retirement job. When he steps in front of the green
screen, it’s clear why he has chosen it over actual retirement; in
front of the camera he moves, if not quite like a man half his age,
then at least like a man three quarters of it. His eyes light up, and
the slight stoop with which he otherwise carries himself disappears.
His rumble of a voice evens out into a theatrical baritone, full of the
practiced jocularity of someone who has spent all but the first
nineteen years of his life on TV.

By his own rough estimate, John Coleman has performed more than a
quarter million weathercasts. It is not a stretch to say that he is
largely responsible for the shape of the modern weather report. As the
first weatherman on ABC’s Good Morning America in the late
1970s and early ’80s, Coleman pioneered the use of the onscreen
satellite technology and computer graphics that are now standard nearly
everywhere. In 1982, chafing at the limitations of his daily slot on GMA,
Coleman used his spare time—and media mogul Frank Batten’s money—to
launch The Weather Channel. The idea seemed quixotic then, and his
tenure as president ended a year later after an acrimonious split with
Batten. But time proved Coleman to be something of a genius—the channel
was turning a profit within four years, and by the time NBC-Universal
bought it in 2008 it had 85 million viewers and a $3.5 billion price
tag.

Those were the first two acts of Coleman’s career. On a Sunday night
in early November 2007, Coleman sat down at his home computer and
started to write the 967 words that would launch the third. “It is the
greatest scam in history,” he began. “I am amazed, appalled and highly
offended by it. Global Warming: It is a SCAM.”

What had set him off was a football game. The Eagles were playing the Cowboys in Philadelphia on Sunday Night Football,
and as a gesture of environmental awareness—it was “Green is Universal”
week at NBC-Universal—the studio lights were cut for portions of the
pre-game and half-time shows. Coleman, who had been growing
increasingly skeptical about global warming for more than a decade,
finally snapped. “I couldn’t take it anymore,” he told me. “I did a
Howard Beale.”

Skepticism is, of course, the core value of scientific inquiry. But the essay that Coleman published
that week, on the Web site ICECAP, would have more properly been termed
rejectionism. Coleman wasn’t arguing against the integrity of a
particular conclusion based on careful original research—something that
would have constituted useful scientific skepticism. Instead, he went
after the motives of the scientists themselves. Climate researchers, he
wrote, “look askance at the rest of us, certain of their superiority.
They respect government and disrespect business, particularly big
business. They are environmentalists above all else.”

The Drudge Report picked up Coleman’s essay, and within days its
author was a cause célèbre on right-wing talk radio and cable
television, beaming into Glenn Beck’s TV show via satellite from the
KUSI studios to elaborate on the scientists’ conspiracy. “They all have
an agenda,” Coleman told Beck, “an environmental and political agenda
that said, ‘Let’s pile on here, we’re all going to make a lot of money,
we’re going to get research grants, we’re going to get awards, we’re
going to become famous.’”

Along with the appearances on Beck’s and Rush Limbaugh’s programs
came speaking offers, and soon Coleman was on the conference circuit, a
newly minted member of the loose-knit confederation of professional
skeptics. (Coleman insists his views on climate change are apolitical,
and says he has turned down offers to speak at Tea Parties and other
conservative events.) His interviews and speeches that have been posted
to YouTube have, in some cases, been viewed hundreds of thousands of
times.

None of it would have had much of an impact, but for Coleman’s
résumé. For the many Americans who don’t understand the difference
between weather—the short-term behavior of the atmosphere—and
climate—the broader system in which weather happens—Coleman’s
professional background made him a genuine authority on global warming.
It was an impression that Coleman encouraged. Global warming “is not
something you ‘believe in,’” he wrote in his essay. “It is science; the
science of meteorology. This is my field of life-long expertise.”

Except that it wasn’t. Coleman had spent half a century in the
trenches of TV weathercasting; he had once been an accredited
meteorologist, and remained a virtuoso forecaster. But his work was
more a highly technical art than a science. His degree, received fifty
years earlier at the University of Illinois, was in journalism. And
then there was the fact that the research that Coleman was rejecting
wasn’t “the science of meteorology” at all—it was the science of
climatology, a field in which Coleman had spent no time whatsoever.

Coleman’s crusade caught the eye of
Kris Wilson, an Emory University journalism lecturer and a former TV
news director and weatherman himself, and Wilson got to wondering. He surveyed
a group of TV meteorologists, asking them to respond to Coleman’s claim
that global warming was a scam. The responses stunned him. Twenty-nine
percent of the 121 meteorologists who replied agreed with Coleman—not
that global warming was unproven, or unlikely, but that it was a scam.*
Just 24 percent of them believed that humans were responsible for most
of the change in climate over the past half century—half were sure this
wasn’t true, and another quarter were “neutral” on the issue. “I think
it scares and disturbs a lot of people in the science community,”
Wilson told me recently. This was the most important scientific
question of the twenty-first century thus far, and a matter on which
more than eight out of ten climate researchers were thoroughly
convinced. And three quarters of the TV meteorologists Wilson surveyed
believe the climatologists were wrong.

In fact, anecdotal evidence of this disconnect had been accruing for
several years. When a freakish snowstorm hit Las Vegas in December
2008, CNN meteorologist Chad Myers, appearing on Lou Dobbs Tonight,
used the occasion to expound on his own doubts about global warming.
“You know, to think that we could affect weather all that much is
pretty arrogant,” he told Dobbs. “Mother Nature is so big, the world is
so big, the oceans are so big.” Today’s most oft-quoted and influential
skeptics include Joseph D’Aleo, The Weather Channel’s first director of
meteorology, and Anthony Watts, a former Chico, California, TV
meteorologist and prolific blogger who is leading a volunteer effort to
document irregularities among the twelve hundred weather stations the
National Weather Service maintains across the country (a concern that
the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration considers
negligible, and in any case has factored into its calculations since
the ’90s). When Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, Congress’s most reliable
opponent of climate-change legislation, presented a list of more than
four hundred “science authorities” who disagreed with the prevailing
scientific opinion on climate change in 2008, forty-four of them were
TV weathercasters. And after the signature of Mike Fairbourne, the
weatherman for Minneapolis’s CBS affiliate, turned up on a similar
petition that year, reporters for the Minneapolis Star Tribune called around and found that hardly any
of the city’s TV weathercasters believed in climate change; one had
recently called the idea “crazy” on a local talk-radio show.

More striking is the fact that the weathercasters became outspoken
in their rejection of climate science right around the time the rest of
the media began to abandon the on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand
approach that had dominated their coverage of the issue for years, and
started to acknowledge that the preponderance of evidence lay with
those who believed climate change was both real and man-made. If
anything, that shift radicalized the weathermen. “I think the media is
almost sleeping with the enemy,” one meteorologist told me. “The way it
is now, there is just such a bias as to what gets out.”

Free-market think tanks like the Heartland Institute, knowing an
opportunity when they see one, now woo weathercasters with invitations
to skeptics’ conferences. The National Science Foundation and the
Congress-funded National Environmental Education Foundation, meanwhile,
are pouring money into efforts to figure out where exactly the climate
scientists lost the meteorologists, and how to win them back. The
American Meteorological Society (AMS)—which formally endorsed the
scientific consensus on climate change years ago, but counts many of
the skeptics among its members, to its chagrin—has started including
climate-change workshops for weathercasters in its conferences. For all
of their differing agendas, the outfits have one thing in common: they
have all realized that, however improbably, the future of
climate-change policy in the United States rests to a not-insubstantial
degree on the well-tailored shoulders of the local weatherman.

In the fall of 2008, researchers from George Mason and Yale universities conducted the most fine-grained survey
to date about what Americans know and think about climate change. The
short answer, unsurprisingly, was not very much. “Climate change is an
incredibly complicated subject,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of
the Yale Project on Climate Change and one of the study’s co-authors.
“Most people are not interested in digging through the scientific
literature, and in that situation trust becomes an enormous factor. We
rely on people and organizations to guide us through this incredibly
complicated and risky landscape.”

That was where the survey’s findings got interesting. When asked
whom they trusted for information about global warming, 66 percent of
the respondents named television weather reporters. That was well above
what the media as a whole got, and higher than the percentage who
trusted Vice-President-turned-climate-activist Al Gore, either of the
2008 presidential nominees, religious leaders, or corporations.
Scientists commanded greater credibility, but only 18 percent of
Americans actually know one personally; 99 percent, by contrast, own a
television. “Meteorology benefits from the fact that we’re just about
the only science that has an individual in people’s living rooms every
night,” says Keith Seitter, the executive director of the American
Meteorological Society. “For many people, it’s the only scientist whose
name they know.”

There is one little problem with this: most weathercasters are not
really scientists. When Wilson surveyed a broader pool of
weathercasters in an earlier study,
barely half of them had a college degree in meteorology or another
atmospheric science. Only 17 percent had received a graduate degree,
effectively a prerequisite for an academic researcher in any scientific
field.

This case of mistaken identity has been a source of tension
throughout television’s sixty-odd-year history. When TVs began to
proliferate in postwar American households, the first generation of
weathercasters that viewers saw on them was mostly military men,
recently discharged World War II veterans who had trained in
meteorology in the Navy and the Army Air Corps. (Louis Allen,
Washington, D.C.’s first TV weatherman, had drawn up the forecasts for
the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.) But as broadcasting licenses
multiplied and stations began to compete with each other in the ’50s,
meteorologist Robert Henson recounts in Weather on the Air: A History of Broadcast Meteorology
(to be published this year), the Army men gave way to entertainers:
scantily clad “weather girls” abounded, as did puppets, including one
who divined the forecast with his handlebar mustache. A weatherman in
Nashville read his forecast in verse. One New York station featured a
“weather lion.”

After a few years of this sort of thing, the American Meteorological
Society decided to step in; the professional association’s membership,
then comprised mostly of government and academic meteorologists, had
grown wary of what the weather girls were doing to their reputation.
The society devised a voluntary meteorological certification system, a
seal of approval that TV weathercasters could obtain with the right
academic background—at least a bachelor’s degree in meteorology—or
demonstrated knowledge in the field. (This seal is what technically
distinguishes a meteorologist from a weathercaster.) In a 1955 TV Guide
article entitled “Weather is No Laughing Matter,” AMS member Francis
Davis wrote that “If TV weathermen are going to pose as experts, we
feel they should be experts.”

Although it took years, Davis’s view eventually won out. By the end
of the ’70s, weathercasters had begun to treat their responsibilities
with some seriousness. They started to see themselves as everyman (they
were still mostly men) scientists, authority figures who helped viewers
not only anticipate once-unpredictable events, but also comprehend
them. And when you think about it, the achievement weathercasters have
pulled off as science educators is remarkable—ask anyone with a
television to name some meteorological terms, and odds are they will be
able to rattle off half a dozen: low pressure systems, wind shear,
cumulonimbus clouds. Weathercasters are usually a sort of science
ambassador to their communities as well, and spend as much time talking
to elementary school classes and civic groups about science as they do
forecasting on the air. The work hasn’t gone unappreciated; heaps of audience research
have identified the weather report as the most popular segment of the
local news broadcast, and the biggest factor in viewers’ choice of
which newscast to watch. Even as Americans’ trust in the media as a
whole has cratered, love for the weatherman has persisted at levels
unchanged since Walter Cronkite’s day.

The Clinton administration had all of this in mind in October 1997,
when it gathered meteorologists from dozens of the nation’s biggest
television markets at the White House for a special summit on climate
change. In two months, negotiators would be meeting in Kyoto to
renegotiate the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change,
the talks that would ultimately produce the Kyoto Protocol. Americans
were still largely uninformed about climate change, and the White House
was hoping the weathercasters could help bring them up to speed. More
than one hundred of them showed up to hear speeches from Gore—an early
version of the slideshow later documented in An Inconvenient Truth—and President Bill Clinton, as well as leading NOAA climate researchers.

As the administration had hoped, the meteorologists used the
occasion to opine about climate change—but what many of them said
wasn’t quite what Al Gore had in mind. “There’s still a significant
segment of the scientific community that’s not sold on this,” Harvey
Leonard, then the weatherman at WHDH in Boston, told The Washington Post.
Others loudly refused to attend the summit, including all but one of
the weathercasters in the Oklahoma City market. “I’m not smart enough
to know [if the earth is warming], and I don’t think any person on the
planet is,” KOKH meteorologist Tim Ross told the Daily Oklahoman.
The following month, twenty TV weather personalities added their names
to the Leipzig Declaration, a petition opposing the global warming
theory.

It was only a blip on the radar, but it presaged the broader
rejection of climate science that would come a decade later. The
question was, why? No doubt, some of the blame belonged to the
White House. In positioning themselves as advocates for not only a
policy position but also a scientific one, Clinton and Gore had
conflated the political question of what to do about climate change—one
that was, and remains, deeply partisan in the U.S.—with the apolitical
question of whether it was happening. This put the weathermen in a
tricky spot—embracing what was, even then, the majority position in the
scientific community would make them look like shills for the
administration. “Since the White House is behind it, it’s political,”
Leonard told the Post. “I’m not a lap dog,” Gary England of KWTV in Oklahoma City—now a prominent climate skeptic—told the Daily Oklahoman.
“I think Al Gore’s motives were pretty good—he saw early on the
potential that these people had,” Kris Wilson says. “But he was
probably the wrong spokesman. As journalists, we’re taught to be
skeptical, right? We’re taught that if your mother says she loves you,
get a second source.”

But the disagreement, then as now, also came down to the
weathercasters themselves, and what they knew—or believed they knew.
Meteorology has a deceptively close relationship with climatology: both
disciplines study the same general subject, the behavior of the
atmosphere, but they ask very different questions about it.
Meteorologists live in the short term, the day-to-day forecast. It’s an
incredibly hard thing to predict accurately, even with the best models
and data; tiny discrepancies matter enormously, and can pile up quickly
into giant errors. Given this level of uncertainty in their own work,
meteorologist looking at long-range climate questions are predisposed
to see a system doomed to terminal unpredictability. But in fact, the
basic question of whether rising greenhouse gas emissions will lead to
climate change hinges on mostly simple, and predictable, matters of
physics. The short-term variations that throw the weathercasters’
forecasts out of whack barely register at all.

This is the one explanation that everyone who has mulled the
question seems to agree on—and indeed, when I spoke with meteorologists
who were skeptical of or uncertain about the scientific consensus, it
was the one thing they all brought up. “Meteorologists know our
models,” Brian Neudorff, a meteorologist at WROC in Rochester, New
York, told me. “There’s a lot of error and bias. We’ll use five
different models and come back with five different things. So when we
hear that climatological models are saying this, how accurate are they?”

But that hardly explains why so many meteorologists have disregarded the mountain of evidence of global warming that has already
occurred—or why, in the case of the hard-line skeptics, they are so
fixated on proving a few data sets’ worth of tree-ring and ice core
measurements wrong. “I think a lot of people have theories,” Robert
Henson says, “but nobody knows for sure.”

In the absence of a clear answer, several institutions—the National
Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF), the Yale Forum on Climate
Change & the Media, and the University Corporation for Atmospheric
Research among them—have decided that education is the problem, and
have launched projects aimed at teaching the weathercasters the basics
of climatology. All proceed from the assumption that unreachable
skeptics like Coleman are few and far between, and that most
meteorologists are more uncertain than adamant, lost amid the
Internet’s slurry of fact and counterfact. “While there is a group that
seems to have made up their mind about climate change, there’s still a
substantial portion that’s interested in learning more,” says Sara
Espinoza, a program director at NEET. The AMS—which finds its
credibility threatened by its televised emissaries a second time—is
working with NEEF on a do-it-yourself climate science education package
for meteorologists that points them to government data and
peer-reviewed research. It is part of the AMS’s broader “station
scientist” program, which aims to give meteorologists the tools they
need to become the go-to authorities in their newsrooms on all
scientific subjects, not just the weather. In essence, it is a doubling
down on the wager that the AMS made fifty-five years ago: if viewers
are going to assume weathercasters are experts anyway, we might as well
try to make them experts.

It remains a laudable goal. But in my own conversations with
skeptical meteorologists, I began to think that that earlier effort had
helped create the problem in the first place. The AMS had succeeded in
making many weathercasters into responsible authorities in their own
wheelhouse, but somewhere along the way that narrow professional
authority had been misconstrued as a sort of all-purpose scientific
legitimacy. It had bolstered meteorologists’ sense of their expertise
outside of their own discipline, without necessarily improving the
expertise itself. Most scientists are loath to speak to subjects
outside of their own field, and with good reason—you wouldn’t expect a
dentist to know much about, say, the geological strata of the Grand
Canyon. But meteorologists, by virtue of typically being the only
people with any science background at their stations, are under the
opposite pressure—to be conversant in anything and everything
scientific. This is a good thing if you see yourself as a science
communicator, someone who sifts the good information from the bad—but
it becomes a problem when you start to see scientific authority
springing from your own haphazardly informed intuition, as many of the
skeptic weathercasters do. Among the certified meteorologists Wilson
surveyed in 2008, 79 percent considered it appropriate to educate their
communities about climate change. Few of them, however, had taken the
steps necessary to fully educate themselves about it. When asked which
source of information on climate change they most trusted, 22 percent
named the AMS. But the next most popular answer, with 16 percent, was
“no one.” The third was “myself.”

The biggest difference I noticed between the meteorologists who
rejected climate science and those who didn’t was not how much they
knew about the subject, but how much they knew about how much
they knew—how clearly they recognized the limits of their own training.
Among those in the former category was Bob Breck, the AMS-certified
chief meteorologist at Fox affiliate WVUE in New Orleans and a
thirty-two-year veteran of the business. Breck rejected the notion of
human-driven climate change wholesale—“I just find that [idea] to be
quite arrogant,” he told me. Instead, when Breck talked to local
schools and Rotaries and Kiwanis clubs about climate change, he
presented his own ideas: warming trends were far more dependent on the
water vapor in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, he told them, and
the appearance of an uptick in global temperatures was the result of
the declining number of weather stations in cold rural areas.

These theories were not only contradictory of each other, but had
also been considered and rejected by climate researchers years ago. But
Breck didn’t read much climate research; “the technical journals are
controlled by the professors who run the various societies,” he told
me, and those professors were hopelessly dependent on the “gravy train
of grants from the NSF” that required them to propagate “alarmist
theories.” When I mentioned the AMS, Breck bristled. “I don’t need the
AMS seal—which I have,” he said. “I don’t need their endorsements. The
only endorsements I need are my viewers, and they like what I do.”

As Breck went on, I began to get a sense of the enormity of the
challenge at hand. Convincing someone he is an expert is one thing.
Actually making him one—well, that is another thing entirely. 

*Correction: The article originally stated that 29
percent of survey respondents agreed with the statement that gobal
warming was “the greatest scam in history.” It has been changed to
reflect the fact that the statement they agreed with was: “global
warming is a scam.” We regret the error.

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply