Climate change is still risky business for some meteorologists

Almost 10 years ago to the day, I thought it might not be a terrible idea to talk to some area TV meteorologists about climate change and the pressure they feel to take a “side.”

It wasn’t easy. All but two of the 11 I contacted — Craig Edwards, then of MPR News, and Steph Anderson, then of KTTC in Rochester, Minn. — didn’t want to talk to me. And probably with good reason. In 2008, WCCO meteorologist Mike Fairbourne signed a statement from 31,000 “scientists” who contended the role of humans in global warming is overblown. He was excoriated for his views by those who disagreed. That’s a bad thing in a business fueled by ratings, and TV meteorologists are the main driver of viewer loyalty to a local TV station.

At the time, a study said, only a third of the nation’s TV weathercasters believed there was scientific consensus on climate change.

Anderson said she couldn’t say climate change was happening. Edwards was pretty sure it was.

We’re going to guess the number of TV weatherpeople willing to talk about it, though, has changed based on a small dust-up on Twitter last evening because of this tweet from KARE.

The tweet promoted this segment on KARE’s Breaking the News, which featured weather icon Paul Douglas, a climate change evangelical.

Douglas is one of the first meteorologists in the country who made it OK for TV meteorologists to talk about climate change.

It’s that word “debate” that caused the intramural spat.

Curiously, it featured local meteorologists who are all on the same page on the issue.

Mike Augustyniak, of WCCO, was the first to challenge Breaking the News producer Nikki Muehlhausen.

Once you cleared away all the deniers trying to muscle in on the conversation, the Twitter exchange illuminated the reality that although TV meteorologists seem more willing to address climate change now, the blowback for appearing to suggest science is not settled on the question — even if it’s incorrect — is much more intense than in Fairbourne’s day.

But it’s still slow going to get broadcast meteorologists to talk about their views on the science. Last year, for example, George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication issued a survey request to 2,220 of them. Only 486 responded to multiple requests. Only 2 percent of those who answered the survey said they don’t think climate change is happening.

Nineteen percent of those surveyed said they planned to alter how they presented climate change information because of the “political climate,” with 27 percent of them (5 percent of the sample size) saying they would provide less information.

(h/t: Paul Tosto)

Related: Beer, but to get your attention on climate change (Climate Cast)

  • Gary F

    The TV/Radio station gets turned by many people when the term “climate change” gets mentioned. Just saying.

  • Jack Ungerleider

    If as Chris Hrapsky says, “The story isn’t about a debate.” Then why did they use that word in their promo? (Even if it was only a twitter promo.)

    They’re a communications company, you’d think they would do a better job of communicating what they are presenting.

  • jon

    Watch me fix this by changing one letter….
    “Climate change berate.”

    97% of climate scientists agree… but it’s not 100%…
    70% of americans know what year 9/11 happened, but it’s not 100%…
    99.5% of women don’t believe they had a virgin birth… but it’s not 100% (condoms are 98% effective when used correctly, meaning abstinence is only 2.5% more effective than condoms at preventing pregancy)*

    So, why are we not having a “debate” about all of these things?!?! (I really want to watch the debate of “9/11 happened in 2001” vs. “I don’t know when it happened.”)


    • BJ

      * that study is really neat.

      • jon

        Neat? I can only imagine how many pregnancies I caused by not having sex with women (like all through high school… their choice, not mine), pregnancies that I don’t even know about… I mean 1 out of every 200 times I practiced abstinence a woman statistically ended up pregnant… scary numbers.

        • Kassie

          To be fair, I have a few friends who had virgin births, if lack of male penetration is your definition of virginity. Science is amazing.

          • BJ

            That study takes that into account!! They don’t count for this purpose!

  • Re: “debate”. Maybe the way the word is colloquially tossed around has less to do with opinions within the scientific community and more to do with [past?] opinions among meteorologists (see the reference above to “At the time, a study said, only a third of the nation’s TV weathercasters believed there was scientific consensus on climate
    change.”), and the debate that really does still exist among the public.

    Meteorologists don’t make public policy or enact regulations and legislation wrt the environment or industry. Elected officials do. And there still appears, to me, at least, to be plenty of debate in the halls of state legislatures and in Congress whether or not climate change is “real”. Sounds like a debate to me.

  • Barton

    I watched the Bring Me the News segment last night. After reading the above, I have the same question I had last night: does Paul Douglas require people to refer to him as a meteorologist and a Christian? Is that why the above stated it is “self described.”

  • Guest

    Just to throw a monkey wrench:
    The value of actually having a debate is to learn.

    A) The planet is not round, it IS an “oblate spheroid”

    B) The planet does not revolve once every 24 hours, it is actually a few minutes shorter than that. High noon to high noon IS 24 hours, but it takes less than 24 hours to spin 360 degrees.

    • Chris Golledge

      The earth is more perfectly round than your average billiard ball. I don’t think too many people will object to calling billiard balls ’round’.

    • jon

      If we are being pedantic, high noon isn’t 24 hours either… it can vary by something like 8 seconds on either side of the 24 hour mark… (at the equator, latitude is going to impact that as well…)
      But at some point we need to accept that rounding is going to happen… be it through gravitational forces, or lazy mathematicians, or physicists who know all measurements are less than 100% accurate and worry about significant figures… though a civil day is always 24 hours long, with exception for the occasional leap second, by definition.

      And if we are continuing to be pedantic, let’s look at definitions.
      Spheroid: a spherelike but not perfectly spherical body.
      Round: shaped like or approximately like a sphere.

      So how you can feel that the earth is not round I don’t understand… clearly it is, and you go on to claim that it is with a synonym…

  • Jeff C.

    I always love an excuse to direct people to a John Oliver clip. (Best line: “Are there hats?”)

  • Jeff

    Like most things we just need to add Ronald Reagan to the title and the problem will be solved, e.g., it should have had the title Ronald Reagan presents: An Inconvenient Truth and we’d be 20 years ahead. I’m starting the Ronald Reagan Climate Change Institute.

  • Josh D.

    Even if it isn’t a scientific debate, is it not a political debate? Just look at the changes to the EPA, White House policy, ect., after the last election. Or look at how some states scrub any mention of it from their official websites and actions while others embrace the challenge of trying to fix it. While scientists don’t see it as a debate (rightfully so), certainly politicians seem to. I get how saying its a debate keeps the debate alive when there shouldn’t even be one, but on the flip side the people of this country do seem to still be debating it despite the scientists overwhelming lack of debate.

    • It brings up the larger question of whether journalism needs to wait for the most ignorant and uninformed to get a clue before moving ahead with the story. The stupid kids are really holding the class back at this point.

  • DanM

    Climate Change means more snow in the Northeast. I live in the Northeast and I like snow, so I like Climate Change.

    Please leave Climate Change alone.

    Thank You.