Climate change and the TV meteorologist

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There may be a good reason why TV weather forecasters are reluctant to talk about climate change. The minute they do, they risk alienating a large segment of the audience which may know as little about the science of climate change as they often do.

This week, researchers at the University of Texas and George Mason University released a study showing only 54% of weathercasters believe climate change is occurring, while one in four agreed with the assertion that climate change as a result of human activity is a scam (See the full research here).

“From our perspective there’s a lot of positive in it about the willingness of a lot of weathercasters who say they don’t know as much as they want to about the science,” Kris Wilson, senior lecturer in the College of Communication at the University of Texas told me this week. “They can still change their mind; they’re open to learning about the science.”

Wilson has created a two-hour module for weathercasters that tries to convince them that if they would simply report the science of climate change, the public might get better information.

“One of the big chunks was how do climate models differ from weather models, because many of the skeptics were couching their criticisms with ‘you can’t trust the models,'” according to Wilson. “If you can just stick to the science, the science is really pretty clear and definitive and the consensus that’s been built among climate change science is really very extraordinary in the field.”

Why does it matter what weathercasters say? Because for many people, it’s the only source of science information once they graduate from school. And TV newsroom managers are asking their weatherperson to take on some of the tasks of science reporting, a role 79% of the meteorologists surveyed say they welcome. Yet, only a third of TV weathercasters believe there is a scientific consensus on climate change.

But the method by which a TV newscast is put together, doesn’t help. “This winter is a perfect example because it was cold in, say, Washington DC.” Wilson says. “And so what happens is a producer will stack the blizzard in Washington right before the weathercast, and then sometimes the anchors will turn to them and say ‘Well, how can that be happening if global warming is going on?”

“Weathercasters refer to that as an ‘ambush,'” he says. “You don’t ever know what’s going to happen in that moment and sometimes what gets communicated is very off the cuff and spontaneous.”

And often, wrong.

It can be a scary moment in a profession where audience approval is required. WCCO meteorologist Mike Fairbourne found that out in 2008 when he signed a statement from 31,000 “scientists” who contended the role of humans in global warming is overblown. He was criticized by those who say the climate science couldn’t be more clear.

“Climate change, for unfortunate reasons, has become so politicized that you can’t even talk about science without setting yourself up from one side or the other. So weathercasters are trying to keep a low profile,” according to Wilson. “They also recognize the risk involved because it puts them out there. The most common questions they get involves a hesitancy to trust a weathercaster about a long-term forecast when they can’t get the short-term forecast right.”

That would certainly appear to be the case in Minnesota, where out of more than a dozen meteorologists I contacted for their view for this post, only two were willing or able to give it.

steph_anderson.jpg “I feel tremendous pressure to take a side on global warming,” Steph Anderson, a meteorologist at KTTC TV in Rochester told me in an e-mail. “I’m a scientist, so people expect me to have a scientific viewpoint on it, and reasoning behind it. Turns out, I don’t like to talk about it.”

“Honest and upfront, I don’t talk about it, I don’t believe in it. Mostly because I can’t say it’s happening, yet. It’s hard enough to get a seven-day forecast right; I’m supposed to believe that the earth is going to warm excessively in so many years? Climate has changed over the earth’s time. We’ve had ice ages and warmed back up. It’s cyclical. Who’s to say that won’t happen this time around? Weather’s hard enough to predict, but I don’t predict climate, I don’t work with models that do such things, but I know that in order for me to believe something, I need concrete data over a long period of time. Frankly, I haven’t seen that yet with the global climate change debate.

“I also won’t take a stance on global climate change when I’m presenting short-term data that’s all over the place. This last summer we had one of the coldest July’s on record. Now in March we haven’t had any snow. My seven-day forecast changes several times over the course of a week. I’m fighting enough for credibility. If I’m crying global warming and it’s not true…or if I’m not crying warming and it is true…I’d rather not risk my credibility at something that’s so long-term and far out I can’t predict it….and is hard to predict anyway.”

Kris Wilson says the tendency of weathercasters to relate climate change to meteorology — rather than climatology — is the source of viewer/listener misinformation. “They have distinct differences and what we’re finding is that they’re projecting a lot of inconsistencies and flaws of weather forecasting models onto climate forecasting models. The weather is much more volatile. But climate models don’t work that way.”

Heidi Cullen, a meteorologist who once suggested meteorologists should not be certified by the American Meteorological Society “if they can’t speak to the fundamental science of climate change,” told the New York Times this week that the climatologists aren’t stepping on the weather forecasters’ turf. “They are not trying to predict the weather for 2050, just generally that it will be hotter,” she said. “And just like I can predict August will be warmer than January, I can predict that.”

Craig Edwards, an MPR meteorologist and long-time National Weather Service meteorologist, says the political nature of the debate clouds the need for stewardship. “In the book by Newt Gingrich and Terry Maple, A Contract with the Earth, they state there is no “we vs. they” when it comes to the stewardship of the planet. As a meteorologist, if I predict rain for Friday and it doesn’t rain, you can track me down on Saturday and tell me I was wrong. As a climatologist, if I predict that 100 years from now that the ocean level will rise 20 inches and it only comes up five inches, I won’t be around for you to tell me I was wrong. If we have 100 years to prepare for coastal sea level to rise two feet, yet we continue to build oceanside, shame on us.”

“Do I feel as if we should be doing everything we can to reduce our energy consumption, drive more fuel-efficient cars, and be more earth-friendly?” Anderson adds. “Absolutely, but we should have made this effort long ago, not because of global warming fears, and at least before Al Gore’s film came out. To me, his film has turned global warming into more of a political game than a science one. Also, I don’t feel the average citizen is very informed of climate change and is rather brainwashed. So when they hear a piece of data, such as, “this year the earth warmed 1 degree”, I feel their mindset goes like a magnet to a fridge to “global warming!”. But what caused that 1 degree warm-up? Was it really humans? Was it something else?”

Steph Anderson says she prefers to “leave the long-term stuff up to the experts.” The experts — climatologists — say the problem is they don’t get the chance to spend five minutes a night before a trusting television audience.

Learn more about the research from Kris Wilson of the University of Texas.()

  • Bismuth

    Well, yeah. Climate and weather are two different phenomena, and are not as related as you might think.

  • Disco

    First off, TV “meteorologists” are not scientists. With few exceptions, they are TV personalities who happen to talk about the weather. They are hired based predominantly on their appearance, not their skill or knowledge. Anyone can do the job, so they hire the cutest one.

    So it would stand to reason that they are ignorant of science and research. And it follows that they are probably easily influenced by climate change deniers.

  • Heather

    Thanks for letting her speak for herself, Bob! For somebody who doesn’t want to talk about it, she sure had a lot to say! Sounds like she might want to bone up on her climate science a little.

  • I am with Steph Anderson on this.

    As an Engineer, I have some serious problems with the “science”. But that doesn’t mean that we should continue burning fossil fuels as we have, deforesting big hunks of the planet, and destroying inland seas.

    My complaint is the relative absorption in the IR band between Carbon Dioxide and Water. That’s pretty esoteric stuff.

    My real concern in this whole debate is that if we put all our chips on human-generated Carbon Dioxide driven global warming and this is proven to not be the main issue, environmental issues will lose credibility. That would be a big problem for a lot of other reasons.

    Anyone who wants to call me a “Denier” based on this is a very silly person.

  • Al

    This is a really long post, Bob. Very informative, but it’s challenging my attention span on a beautiful spring afternoon!

    What I gather though is that many television meteorologists, who we presume are college educated scientists, apparently don’t get the science behind climate change. I realize that climate and weather are not the same thing. I’m a chemist, somoene with a completely different scientific background. I don’t profess to understand all of the intracacies of climate change reasearch. However my scientific background has prepared me to think critically about reported research results. If we can’t expect trained scientists to synthesize the reported information about climate change, then we have no hope that the rest of society will ever get it. I would have hoped that people would have learned these critical thinking skills, that many meteorologists are aparently lacking, before leaving high school.

  • dwight fellman

    Mike Fairbourne is an anti-abortion extremist. So, at least he is consistent with far right.

    – deny anthropogenic climate change;

    – deny extinction cause by human overpopulation;

    – support compulsory state-enforced childbirth;

    the list goes on.

  • Matt

    Climate change is like religon. You can be an over the top evangalistic wacko and preach fire and brimstone that can only be assuaged by giving generously (don’t stop till it hurts) and you will get some followers. You can preach reasonable, common sense, actionable life lessons and give realistic promises of what will happen. Or you can accept your faith as your faith and understand that others may believe differently. There are some who expect us to practice our climate change and religon in very different ways. The truth is that there is just as much data to support that it is mans mortal sins causing natural catastrophes as there is that mans enviornmental sins are bringing us closer to armegeddon.

    Bob,

    Have you read the global warming chapter in Superfreakenomics yet? Given the relative ease that some very bright scientists (who believe in man-made global warming) feel can reverse the problem maybe we need a few less televangelists and some more reasonable discourse.

  • matt

    Here is a link that begins the conversation on Geo-engineering

    http://www.overcomingbias.com/2008/07/artificial-volc.html

  • Ben Chorn

    Graduating in May with a BS in Geology I feel the itch to put my two cents in on this…

    I think a major problem is that all of the climate change in the media is based on fear. The fear is backed by “science”. The problem with this is that when you use only certain science facts to support your fear mongering the public believes it. I suggest for a wider scope on this issue you talk to some geologists. The study of climate change is difficult. I personally don’t agree with the “world will get so hot everything will become extinct” theories out there. Yes if you look at a short amount of time the world is warming, but it also did it 40,000-60,000 years ago. To really get a grasp on the severity of the warming going on now you need to look at all historical data.

  • kennedy

    The difficulty with any model is to include all the factors that can affect the calculated end result.

    Our climate is an immense system with inputs from myriad sources affecting the result. The melting permafrost in northern climes may release methane into the atmosphere which chould accelerate global warming. Elevated temperatures could melt glaciers and the polar cap releasing vast amounts of fresh water into the oceans which may cause cooling. The list goes on.

    Here are the facts that help guide my behavior. Conservation reduces the use of resources which reduces our impact on climate (smog, acid rain, spent nuclear fuel). Conservation stretches the finite resource of fossil fuels, making them more available in the long term for future generations.

  • kennedy

    …and the idea of TV weather forecasters as experts on global warming is a bit like expecting a backhoe operator to be an expert on plate tectonics.

  • Joe Pastoor

    Part of the problem with the climate change question is that the media continue to pose it as a question. The reflexive dialectical structure of journalism demands exactly two sides to every story even when there might be more than two sides or, as in the case of climate change, fewer. The scientific consensus is overwhelming. The evidence of ice retreat is not a matter of opinion. But to create the story, journalists continue giving equal time to people whose ideas do not have equal merit. Where do meteorologists fit into this? The comment by Disco is on the mark.

  • Eric Basile

    I am a former television weathercaster at a smaller market station in Illinois. A key element that went unreported in this story is the fact that many, if not the bulk, of today’s television weathercasters do not hold college degrees in meteorology or atmospheric sciences. Rather, many earned general degrees in communication or radio/television (one of my colleagues at a different station even had a music education degree.) In many cases these folks have only taken the bare minimum coursework necessary to perform their jobs. This is often done through attending a quicky “certificate program” in broadcast meteorology through schools such as Mississippi State. The ability to use these non-degreed individuals has succeeded largely due to the dramatic advances in automated forecasting equipment at television stations – most of the graphic imagery is completed automatically. It requires nothing more than the “talent’s” ability to read off the screen. In smaller markets where even a general assignment reporter may suddenly be tasked to do the weather, the lack of basic knowledge is staggering.

    Even in the case of someone who has a degree in meteorology (like Steph Anderson,) these folks often lack the basic foundation in climatology to offer a thoughtful and well-reasoned opinion on the issue. Nor do I imagine they are spending a great deal of time immersed in journals to keep abreast of the issue. Unfortunately, when the great unwashed public comes looking for answers, they’d rather turn to a familiar face rather than someone who could actually discuss the facts on their merits.

  • Ron Francis

    Why is this discussion even taking place. I laugh inside anytime someone mentions “global warming” (“climate change”). The more enlightened people know it was created political issue. There are some who actually think that government (people) should be in the bussiness of changing the climate. The issue is history now. Any time it is mentioned on NPR/MPR or any other media I turn it off.

  • bsimon

    “The more enlightened people know it was created political issue. … Any time it is mentioned on NPR/MPR or any other media I turn it off.”

    That’s a very enlightened approach.

  • You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows

    I have a blog post on why forecasters and meteorologists are a skeptical group. Take a look.

    Scott A. Mandia, Professor of Physical Sciences

    T-201 Smithtown Sciences Bldg., S.C.C.C.

    533 College Rd., Selden, NY 11784

    Global Warming Page: http://www2.sunysuffolk.edu/mandias/global_warming/

    Global Warming Blog: http://profmandia.wordpress.com

    Facebook Group “Global Warming Fact of the Day”: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=336682515937

  • Ruler4You

    A “Trusting T.V. Audience” would be there if they weren’t treated like idiots (even if they are). You can’t present conclusions and you can’t present opinion. What you need is 100% demonstrated factual substantiation and it’s basis for ‘scientific’ hypothesis. Not a bunch of hocus pocus linking this to that with nothing more than a hint of concrete proof. People may not be scientists but they understand the basic principles of science. And when things don’t add up at the basic level sophisticated calculations don’t matter. For instance, the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe. (which I believe has strong evidence to support) Is there “proof” (not evidence, conclusive 100% “proof”?) that this was the origin of all things? No. There is ‘evidence’. And it is convincing and it is extensive. It is 100% conclusive? No one was there to document it. It’s all supposition. But the evidence is laid out. One more thing, does “science” have the sufficient gravitas to make such a conclusion? These three things prevent most people from being convinced. Of course, you can always try the brainwashing method, where no information not connected to your conclusion is presented and bombard people with propaganda in schools, radio, popular publications, text books, T.V. politics and pseudo science until only your viewpoint is believed. It works for politicians.

  • SammHill

    As a survivor of The Last Great Ice Age of the 1970’s I am skeptical of ‘scientists’ who predict world-wide gloom and doom.

    Like Steph Anderson, I was a MN resident during that time, and the winters were cold. Being young and foolish at the time, I thought there might be something to the scientists dire predictions of the coming Ice Age.

    Fortunately, I survived the 200 foot thick ice sheet that covered Minnesota during the 70’s and 80’s.

    Now these very same ‘scientists’, not just the same group but the very same people, are predicting unbearable heat.

    I’m older and wiser now, and realize that I and my children will survive this too.

  • Alan

    The Earth has been cycling between warming and cooling since bacteria started reproducing on this planet. The Earth has been warming since the end of the little ice age 100,S of years ago. And there is a little way to go before we are back to the temps that the earth was before LIA started with farms and vineyards in Greenland again.

    The same consensus of scientist that shout AGW now are the same bunch that said it was global cooling in the 70’s. They were predicting glaciers to the Dakotas by the year 2000. With that record of accuracy in predictions why believe them now?

    This is a case of, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Al Gore, and the other elitist, will continue to live in their four mansions and fly on private jets and run up electric bills 20X of the rest of us. They have no intension of stopping their life styles to “save the planet”. Of course these people will kill off billions of humans that can not be supported with “green farming” will not include them selves on that list. The rest of us, “the great unwashed”, to the elitists, will have to live in caves or live like the Unibomber.

    This in no longer science or politics it has now raised to the level of religious fanaticism for the church of global warming. They will destroy anyone who attempts to disprove the “churches” theology. The selling of indulgences was done the Catholic Church in the 1500’s so there is precedence for Al and his cronies to sell “carbon credits” for money to pay for their own lavish life style of mansions, private jets and the life style of the rich and famous.

    It’s never been about “saving the planet” and it’s not about clean air or water, it IS about control. Control of how you live your life, the food you eat, the number of kids you can have, the house you can live in and the job that you can have. I heard ALL these same arguments when the eco nuts were saying global cooling back in the 70’s. They will manufacture ANY crisis to advance their agenda. “We can run your life better and more efficiently than you so shut-up and do and we say not as we do”.

  • efred

    Regarding the comment about TV “meteorologists”: I don’t know where you live, but here in Michigan, all of our TV “meteorologists” are AMS-certified meteorologists with advanced degrees, and I don’t know of any that agree with the “climate change” claptrap. In Michigan, the weather is very unpredictable; it’s so spotty that we have a saying here, that if you don’t like the weather, just wait 20 minutes, or move 20 feet. So, we get the best meteorologists because the weather is such a challenge to predict.

    I’m also suprized that there has been no mention of the CRU email scandal; are people still desperately trying to cover it up? I’ve read several of the emails, and yeah, they’re pretty damning: there’s several remarks about supressing data; hiding, denying access to, and even destroying conflicting data. Their creditibility is toast, and if more people read the emails, none of these people would be trusted to even bag groceries at the local grocer. Politics cannot be allowed to drive science; it should be what it is, and that is, the facts as best as we can know them.

    Oh, anyone wanting to read the emails can access them here:

    http://www.eastangliaemails.com/index.php

  • John Hull

    Alan’s comment is right on the money. There are a few of us out here out haven’t drunk the global warming Kool-Aid. It boggles my mind to think anyone could believe that mankind is capable of affecting a natural system that has been functioning for 4.5 billion years. We’re supposed to believe that man can alter that when we’ve only been industrialized for a bit more than 150 years? Puhleese!

  • Stan

    “It boggles my mind to think anyone could believe that mankind is capable of affecting a natural system that has been functioning for 4.5 billion years. We’re supposed to believe that man can alter that when we’ve only been industrialized for a bit more than 150 years? Puhleese!”

    No, it boggles my mind that you believe humans are so insignificant that they have no effect on the planet. Either you’re ignoring, or fail to comprehend the fact that humans have come along and done things to the planet that never previously occurred in the past 4.5 billion years. I’d like to think that that 4.5 billion year cycle was maintained precisely because humans weren’t around to screw it up. Humans have created untold numbers of chemical compounds that never existed in nature prior to our arrival – polluting the water and ruining the soil. Similarly, burning things creates chemical changes – not just physical changes, in our environment. To suggest that we could just go on doing whatever we please to the planet, without a care, simply because the earth is just capable of “adapting” to whatever we do? How arrogant indeed!

  • Annette

    Honestly I don’t trust anyone in government anymore. They have other perogatives that have nothing to do with our well-being. How are we supposed to trust climatologists when they’re being paid by the government to come up with specific results so they can raise taxes!

    On the flip side, I couldn’t trust the media any less. They like the 24/7 channels are just trying to keep their ratings up. It’s all just some scam.

  • Baby

    I agree with bsimon above, quite a contradiction. And Stan, I dont think that anyone is advocating that we should all continue with the way we were a few hundreds here ago, burning fuel and all that they are saying is that believing on all the alarmist is not utilising all of our thinking capacities. I agree with the view that climate change has become a religion with everyone judging where who stands on what. Frankly, I find it hard to believe in scientists that few years ago it was ice age and now its global warming. It doesnt mean that i also think we should conserve, for as the comment above said, it is for our best interest that we conserve, and frankly as a person that grew up around mount Kilimanjaro, i am pro conservation, watching the beauty of the mountain disappear with little by little of the glacier disappear is all the proof i need to conserve trees. bt it has not cause global heating in the area if anything the melting glacier has brought some record cold winters in the area, so forgive me if i wont buy into the global warming psychology.

    oh and climate has always changed, and i think unless the scientist actually understand climate there is no point of trying to predict it. oh and the woman that said that climate is trying to predict a few months up ahead is quite wrong because the reason one can tell that august will be hot is because of one, analysing existing patterns.

  • Roger

    …TV weather forecasters are reluctant to talk about climate change Because it’s a hoax designed to bankrupt western economies and control populations.