Hot Air on Global Warming

1 / 2
2 / 2

John Coleman, the weatherman at KUSI in San Diego, has by his own rough estimate 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 ’70s and early ’80s, Coleman pioneered the use of the onscreen satellite technology and computer graphics that are now standard nearly everywhere. In 1982 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–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, he 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 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 pregame and halftime 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 wrote, which was published on the website ICECAP, would have more properly been termed rejectionism. Coleman wasn’t arguing against the integrity of a particular conclusion based on careful original research. Instead, he went after the motives of the scientists. 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 CNN show via satellite to elaborate on the scientists’ conspiracy. “They all have an agenda,” Coleman told Beck, “an environmental and political agenda that says, ‘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.’ “

Soon Coleman was on the conference circuit, a newly minted member of the loose-knit confederation of professional skeptics. 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 lifelong expertise.”

Except that it wasn’t. Coleman, now 75, 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, from the University of Illinois, was in journalism, and 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 60 years–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 21st 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 believed 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. 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. When Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Congress’ most reliable opponent of climate-change legislation, presented a list of more than 400 “prominent scientists” who disagreed with the prevailing scientific opinion on climate change in 2007, 44 of them were TV weathercasters.

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 human-made. If anything, that shift radicalized the weathercasters. “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–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 substantial degree on the well-tailored shoulders of the local weathercaster.

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 coauthors. “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 complicated and risky landscape.”

That was where the survey’s findings got interesting. Asked whom they trusted for information about global warming, 66 percent of the respondents named television weather reporters. That was well above what the mainstream 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, executive director of the American Meteorological Society. “For many people, it’s the only scientist whose name they know.”

Most weathercasters, however, 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 TV’s 60-odd-year history. When televisions 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 ’50s, 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 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 titled “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’ 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 people 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 has 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 weathercaster has persisted.

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 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 a hundred of them showed up to hear speeches from Gore–an early version of the slide show later documented in An Inconvenient Truth–and President Bill Clinton, as well as leading National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 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 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. The following month, 20 TV weather personalities added their names to the Leipzig Declaration, a petition opposing the global warming theory.

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 United States–with the apolitical question of whether it was happening. This put the weathercasters 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 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.”

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 a 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, meteorologists 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,” says Robert Henson, a meteorologist and science writer at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, “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 and 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 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 [who are] interested in learning more,” says Sara Espinoza, a NEEF program director.

The American Meteorological Society, 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 55 years ago: If viewers are going to assume that weathercasters are experts, 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 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, 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. Asked which source of information on climate change they most trusted, 22 percent named the AMS. The next most popular answer, with 16 percent, was “no one.” The third was “myself.”

Excerpted from Columbia Journalism Review (Jan.-Feb. 2010), a magazine about journalism that isn’t just for journalists. A 2010 Utne Independent Press Award nominee for best

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.