Broadcast weather reports have come a long way from the day when on-air forecasters were aspiring stand-up comedians who wore thundercloud hats and worked with singing animals.
Nearly half of television forecasters today have degrees in meteorology, and many serve as their station's or network's resident scientist. They tell you if you need to take an umbrella to work, but they also explain El Niños and La Niñas and how they affect regional weather patterns.
But climate change activists want broadcast weathercasters to look far beyond the five-day forecast and talk about global warming. They would like to hear forecasters talk about how emissions of power plants, factories and automobiles are spurring climate change.
"The broadcast meteorologists are the closest to a scientist that many Americans ever see," said Susan Joy Hassol, executive director of the Boulder, Colo.-based nonprofit Climate Communication. "This is the person who brings science into their living room every day, so this is really a community that should be talking about climate change -- because climate change is affecting weather, and it is affecting our lives."
But TV weather forecasters aren't buying in.
A survey of 430 weathercasters by George Mason University last year found 19 percent of them believe the climate is changing mostly because of human activity. More believed the weather was changing, but that natural causes play an equal (35 percent) or greater (29 percent) role in driving those changes.
Nine percent said the climate was not changing, and 8 percent were not sure.
The survey results suggest weathercasters' views are more in line with those of the general public than with climate scientists. A Rasmussen Reports survey last month found 40 percent of registered voters believe human activity is driving climate change, while 39 percent believe it is happening but is being spurred by natural causes. The remainder were unconvinced or undecided (Greenwire, Jan. 9).
The view from the television weather forecasting studio is very different from that held by most meteorologists, says Keith Seitter, executive director of the American Meteorological Society (AMS). The society adopted a statement in 2007 saying that while the Earth's climate has changed over time for a variety of reasons, human activity has emerged over the last half-century as a major cause.
"There is a sense that the broadcast meteorologist is a little anomalous," Seitter said. "It's very clear that they have a very different breakdown of those positions compared to the broader community of meteorologists or certainly of climate scientists."
Hassol maintains that weathercasters have a duty to explain how climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events -- tornadoes, hurricanes, droughts and floods. While it is true that no one weather event or one season can be linked solely to climate change, she said, it is important to note that rising temperatures are pushing conditions to extremes.
"We've changed the background conditions," she said. "And isn't that what a broadcast meteorologist is there to do -- not only to report on the day's events, but to put them in context for people?"
Daniel Souweine, director of Forecast the Facts, a campaign by environmental groups pressing broadcast meteorologists to help viewers make connections between weather and climate change, agreed.
"When a weather event happens that has ties to global warming, we think meteorologists have a responsibility to inform their viewers about that connection," Souweine said. "We like to say that not making that connection is the equivalent of reporting on a string of murders in the community, but not mentioning that there is a suspect in custody."
Souweine's campaign took its case to AMS's annual meeting January in New Orleans, where activists pressed the group to quickly adopt a new statement on climate change zeroing in on the role of human emissions. AMS is mulling a new statement on climate change, but Seitter and other members say it may take months to complete it (Greenwire, Jan. 23).
Forecast the Facts now plans to target weather broadcasters who air their skepticism about climate science on the air.
Asked about his group's AMS campaign, Souweine said it is important for the organization to offer firm guidance on climate science because broadcast meteorologists trust it more than other sources of scientific information, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
"We think the AMS has a clear responsibility to give clear guidance to their members," Souweine said.
At some point, he said, AMS should consider certifying only meteorologists who are not vocal climate deniers.
"A certification that allows someone to parrot complete falsehoods on air," he said, "seems like a truly empty designation."
But Bob Breck, a weather reporter with a Fox News affiliate in New Orleans who is among the skeptics the Forecast the Facts campaign is focusing on, said in an interview that he feels personally targeted by climate activists.
"I'm considered a denier because I don't believe that carbon dioxide is driving climate change," he said, "but I'm someone who likes to see both sides."
Breck said that he believes the climate is and has always been changing, but he thinks ocean currents are behind the current warming trend, not industrial emissions. He added that he had never bought the theory that chlorofluorocarbons caused a hole in the atmosphere's ozone layer, either.
He said he remains open to learning about climate research but feels no obligation to defer to climate scientists just because they hold doctorates, while he has a bachelor's degree in meteorology and oceanography. And while he said he has no time to discuss climate change during his three-minute weather report each night, he feels no qualms about doing so elsewhere, including on his blog.
"What do you mean, we can't talk about it?" he said. "I've got a degree in science. Why shouldn't I comment on it?"
Breck tells a personal story to show why he thinks people should speak up when they disagree with experts. Ten years ago, when his wife, Paula, broke her ankle, the doctor insisted on operating even after she told him about her family history of blood clots.
The operation was done, and she died of pulmonary embolism -- blood clots in her lungs -- after surgery.
Breck filed a lawsuit, but he was unable to find an expert witness to testify against the doctor because those he talked to said the doctor had followed the established standard of care.
The same is true for climate scientists, he said. The peer review process for new research is "just pals reviewing pals," he said. "It's the best system we've got, but it's flawed."
John Coleman, a co-founder of the Weather Channel who is still on air in San Diego, not only blogs about his belief that significant man-made climate change is not happening, but also does reporting on climate issues. He has covered the recent furor surrounding documents leaked from the right-leaning think tank and prominent foe of climate scientists, the Heartland Institute.
"I occasionally will make a reference to some aspect of global warming on my weather reports, but only rarely, and not with a pitch or spiel for my position," he said.
Coleman said meteorologists have a right to discuss climate science, especially given that many loud voices in the fray come from people who are not scientists, including the most famous advocate for action on climate change, former Vice President Al Gore.
"Many others say we are meteorologists, not climatologists, so we do not qualify on the topic," he said. "They are full of prunes. We are very well-qualified to study the research and draw conclusions."
He said that he frequently hears from other on-air weather forecasters who would like to speak out, but fear for their jobs. He said he speaks out himself because he is "older, with no further career ambitions and plenty of money for retirement."
While Breck and Coleman say they came to their skepticism by talking to dissenting scientists and reading published research, other broadcast meteorologists say the tools that weather forecasters and climate scientists use might be the root of the misunderstanding.
Both specialties use computer models to predict weather patterns, but while climate models seek to map general trends years or decades into the future, meteorologists rely on theirs to pinpoint specific, immediate weather. The accuracy of those weather models drops steeply in just a few days.
"They know that models are only reliable to predict individual weather events up to 14 days in advance," said Peter Lamb, a professor of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma and a member of the AMS panel crafting the new climate statement.
Climate scientists like Lamb, who conducts research on short-term climate variability, are not trying to pinpoint individual weather events but a probability of events occurring in a particular season. Broadcast meteorologists, he said, may not fully understand the difference between the two types of models and what they do.
Stu Ostro, a senior meteorologist at the Weather Channel who once was skeptical about man-made climate change, said this was a factor in his own former belief.
"As meteorologists, we are constantly observing weather extremes -- new records being set -- and are familiar with the past occurrence of such extremities throughout history," he said. "Thus, it's hard to fathom that anything is different now."
But Ostro did change his mind on global warming.
"I came to the conclusion that something was changing in weather patterns or events which was beyond what would be expected from natural, business-as-usual variability," Ostro said, "that while there have been extremes for as long as there has been weather, their nature is changing -- that something ain't right."
Lamb said that if television weathercasters are going to wade into the issue of climate change -- something that is outside the scope of their day-to-day jobs -- they had better be armed with facts.
But Lamb blamed the media and studies like the George Mason University survey for playing up the divisions between weathercasters and climate scientists.
"This attempt to pit TV meteorologists against climate scientists and vice versa, I don't think it's healthy," he said. "And it's just another example of the over-polarization of politics in this country."
'Lack of trust'
Heidi Cullen, a climate scientist who worked with broadcast meteorologists at the Weather Channel, said tensions do exist between the broadcast meteorologists and climate scientists.
"There was a lack of trust, so that sort of drove some of the emotion around it," said Cullen, who now works for Climate Central, a research and communications firm.
TV weathercasters, who commonly hold bachelor's degrees, felt that they were being talked down to by climate scientists with advanced degrees, she said.
At the same time, climate scientists saw their research being dismissed by some broadcast reporters and meteorologists.
Cullen said she experienced these divisions firsthand at the Weather Channel, where there was disagreement about whether climate change should be part of weather coverage.
"Certain meteorologists felt very, very strongly that climate change was a political issue and that it shouldn't be brought into the TV weather forecast," she said, "whereas some within the community felt like it was an extension of their job as science educator."
Caught in the middle, she said, were those who did not have a strong opinion about climate change but were turned off by the polarized nature of the debate.
"These voices from different ends of the spectrum created a really shrill discussion," Cullen said. "It just felt like you had to be on one team or the other."
Rather than pick a side, she said, many weather forecasters choose not to engage in the climate issue at all.
Cullen said that on-air weather forecasters need a forum to air their differences and understand other points of view.
"For those folks who want to talk about it, you've got to kind of create a safe place for them to feel like they can," she said.
Cullen has worked with behavioral scientists from Yale and George Mason universities, who she said are attempting to fill that gap by offering conflict-resolution workshops for broadcast meteorologists in partnership with AMS and the National Weather Association (see sidebar).
Uneasy with politics
Edward Maibach, the George Mason researcher who headed the survey of broadcast forecasters' climate change views, said the universities have chosen to partner with professional and scientific organizations rather than with environmentalists on the pilot project in order to draw a broader spectrum of participants.
"There's no question that the dominant narrative about climate change in America today is a political narrative, and the environmental community is very involved in trying to push for policy responses," he said. "So it's not an unreasonable conclusion [for would-be participants] to say, 'Hey, we're not interested in talking to the environmental community about this because they're trying to push a political agenda.'
"I actually hear blame pointing at Al Gore," Maibach said, adding that the former vice president has become a "poster boy" in the minds of many forecasters for how climate change became a political rather than a scientific issue.
Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale University's Project on Climate Change, who is also involved in the program, said many broadcast reporters recall a 1997 White House meeting with Gore and President Clinton in which the vice president gave a group of forecasters an early version of his "Inconvenient Truth" PowerPoint presentation that formed the basis for the 2006 Oscar-winning documentary.
The meeting happened in the run-up to the United Nations' climate change talks in Kyoto, Japan, which produced the first binding emissions treaty for emissions of carbon dioxide. The weather forecasters said they felt that they were being enlisted as political messengers, he said.
"They were being asked to support a policy, and in fact that is not their role," he said. "Most of them are not comfortable with that role, period."
Posted by Matt Dempsey firstname.lastname@example.org
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