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 TV show via satellite from the KUSI studios to elaborate on the scientists’ conspiracy. “They all have an agenda,” Coleman told Beck, “an environmental and political agenda that said, ‘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.’”
Along with the appearances on Beck’s and Rush Limbaugh’s programs came speaking offers, and soon Coleman was on the conference circuit, a newly minted member of the loose-knit confederation of professional skeptics. (Coleman insists his views on climate change are apolitical, and says he has turned down offers to speak at Tea Parties and other conservative events.) 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 life-long expertise.”
Except that it wasn’t. Coleman 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, received fifty years earlier at the University of Illinois, was in journalism. And then there was the fact that 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 half century—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 twenty-first 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 believe the climatologists were wrong.