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Science or scam?

Weathercasters grapple with climate change

by Bob Henson

weathercasters at ams meeting

Weathercasters at an AMS meeting in Denver on 28 June pitched questions at a panel that included (left to right) James O’Brien (Florida State University), Kevin Trenberth (NCAR), Pieter Tans (NOAA), Warren Washington (NCAR), and Randall Dole (NOAA). (Photo courtesy Will von Dauster, NOAA.)

With titles like “Global Warming is a Scam,” and “The Global Warming Frenzy,” it’s clear from his occasional blog-style posts that John Coleman is a climate-change contrarian. The fact that this weathercaster at San Diego’s KUSI founded The Weather Channel in 1982 gave his remarks of the past year extra prominence in national media. It also drew attention to the schism between most researchers and some TV weathercasters on the topic of global change.

Nobody has firm numbers, but a noteworthy fraction of TV weathercasters appears to be quite skeptical about human-induced climate change, often dissenting from the conclusions of scientific societies and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Their skepticism was underscored in two papers presented at the American Meteorological Society (AMS) biennial conference on broadcast meteorology, held 25–29 June in Denver.

“We’re too busy shouting at each other to talk to each other about this,” said Sean Sublette (WSET, Lynchburg, Virginia). He recently conducted an anonymous Web-based survey of 85 of his peers, nearly all of them certified by the AMS as broadcast or consulting meteorologists. In a multiple-choice question on the main cause of global warming, 40% chose “some solar and carbon dioxide,” while 26% picked “natural variability.” Only 20% selected “carbon dioxide” alone.

Similar results were presented by Kristopher Wilson, a geographer and journalist at Emory University who’s studied the intersection of climate change and TV weather since the early 1990s. Among 121 weathercasters polled by Wilson, 34% disagreed with the IPCC conclusion that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal,” and 29% agreed with Coleman that “global warming is a scam.”

broadcast meteorologists

Short-fuse weather events are one of the many challenges faced by broadcast meteorologists in finding time to cover climate change. Pictured here are Jeff Penner and Gary Lezak, both of Kansas City’s KSHB. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

“There are both opportunities and obstacles for broadcast meteorologists in covering climate change,” says Wilson. He notes that many weathercasters deliver hundreds of talks or post dozens of blog entries each year in addition to their on-air duties. Some three-quarters of his respondents said they’d already discussed climate change in various formats. However, lack of time and lack of support within TV stations are major disincentives to talking about climate change on the air, Wilson says. There was one truly unexpected result, he adds: “The most commonly cited obstacle to doing more is ‘too much scientific uncertainty,’ which reflects continued skepticism.”

The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society touched on the topic in September 2007 with a guest editorial from former AMS president Bob Ryan (WRC, Washington) and John Toohey-Morales (NBC Telemundo, Miami). The two expressed concern about weathercasters conveying “personal opinions with no scientific basis” rather than considered conclusions. “When we stray from objectivity in communicating the latest scientific findings, we do the public a disservice,” they wrote.

Why are so many TV broadcasters dismissive about climate change? There’s no agreed-upon explanation, but it’s clear that weathercasters face enormous time pressures. In addition, roughly half of them aren’t degreed meteorologists, and those who hold degrees haven’t necessarily had climate-related coursework. There’s also a strong strain of independent thinking among many weathercasters, perhaps owing to their local prominence and to their work in a journalistic milieu where questioning is encouraged.

Given that weathercasters are the most visible representatives of science to many TV viewers, the AMS established its Committee on the Station Scientist in 2006, encouraging broadcasters to provide their viewers with credible reporting on weather, climate, and other environmental topics.

On the Web
 

AMS Station Scientist home page

UOP/COMET Broadcast Meteorologist home page

Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media
(includes TV-related posts from 12 June and 15 July 2008)

 
 

The station-scientist committee helped arrange for weathercasters to brush shoulders with climate scientists during the AMS meeting in Denver. More than 150 attendees spent a day in Boulder on 27 June, when they visited NCAR and NOAA facilities, heard talks from some leading climate experts, and asked pointed questions in small-group settings.

The next morning in Denver, a 90-minute panel discussion on climate change featured Warren Washington and Kevin Trenberth (NCAR); Randall Dole and Pieter Tans (NOAA); and James O’Brien (Florida State University). Dole commiserated with contrarians in the audience, noting that he and Thomas Karl (director of NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center) both harbored skeptical views on climate change a few years back. “We were convinced by the evidence,” Dole said.

Some weathercasters had technical queries—for instance, Richard “Heatwave” Berler (KGNS, Laredo, Texas) inquired about the difficulty of climate models in handling blocking patterns in the atmosphere. Others expressed broader concerns. Gene Norman (KHOU, Houston) referred to comments by UCAR president Richard Anthes during the weathercasters’ Boulder visit, when Anthes admonished them to take climate change seriously.

vickie johnson

UCAR’s Vickie Johnson. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

At first, “I took it as a scolding,” said Norman, “and then I took it as a challenge.” He later added, “I’m making it my own mission to become more educated on the subject and to incorporate some of the information into what we do in the daily broadcast, which is a little challenging. At the same time I know that this issue seems to have become very highly politicized. I want to become more educated, period, so I understand why people might feel the way they do.”

Paul Gross, head of the AMS Committee on the Station Scientist, was pleased at how the Denver and Boulder events unfolded. “Given that climate change is the most prominent environmental topic that broadcast meteorologists face today, this climate session was a strong programming priority for our committee. I have received tremendous positive feedback from my colleagues that this was the most outstanding education they have ever received about climate change.”

Online resources

UCAR is part of an effort to provide weathercasters with resources to help them and their viewers learn more about climate change. With support from the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF), UOP’s Cooperative Program for Operational Meteorology and Education (COMET) is working on a two-hour online module on climate change for weathercasters, due out early in 2009. “We believe that giving meteorologists background information on climate change science will better prepare them to answer the many questions they’re receiving from the public,” says NEEF vice president for programs Deborah Sliter.

“One of the big things weathercasters have asked for is some sense of what the certainties and uncertainties are,” says Victoria Johnson, the COMET project lead on the module’s developement. “I’m hoping we’ll be able to address that, to give people more of a comfort level with what’s known and what still needs to be studied more.” Graphics and animations suitable for use on the air or in public talks are also a high priority, says Johnson. Given the topic, she adds, “There’s way more material than we can put in a two-hour module.”

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